There are athletes who just seem to be wired to come up big in big moments, to seize the opportunity and welcome the pressure and the intensity.
Fred VanVleet might be that kind of guy.
There’s every indication he has the tools and the mental makeup. And now he’s going to get a chance — fully healthy and fully integrated into his team — to be what he expects to be. What a difference a year makes.
“I was reflecting a little bit — coming into the gym and not wanting to shoot and not wanting to work out a year ago because I knew that my shoulder was hurt,” VanVleet said as the Raptors began preparing for Saturday’s playoff opener against the Orlando Magic. “So, yeah, obviously I’m excited and feeling pretty good, as good as I can get. I’ll take that for what it’s worth.”
A year ago, the Raptors guard was nowhere near as good as he could be when the NBA playoffs rolled around. He had hurt his shoulder in the final game of the regular season running into the large mass that is Miami Heat centre Bam Adebayo. VanVleet barely played in Toronto’s first-round series win over Washington and was barely himself when the Raptors were swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Article Continued Below
It was frustrating and painful and a lost opportunity to really have an impact at the most important time of the year. It’s a time of the year it seems VanVleet was built for.
“I think the cards certainly lay out a lot better for him right now and I think the capabilities are there,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet’s post-season potential. “At some point in this playoffs, he’s going to have a big (game) or a few, or he’s going to have an impact, because that’s what he is. He’s an impactful guy.
“It seems like the more pressure there is, the more this guy plays smarter and better and tougher. So I think we’ll see it at some point.”
There is no doubt that a healthy VanVleet will be integral to whatever success the Raptors experience in the playoffs. He’s a tenacious defender and a big-shot maker. He finishes most close games along with Kyle Lowry in a tremendous backcourt and he helps put a cover of calm over the team when he’s on the floor running it.
It’s a trademark of this Raptors team, the sense that they are in control even when it looks like they’re not. VanVleet is kind of the leader of that brigade; he gets them organized when they need it, allows Lowry to play off the ball and seems to gravitate to the big moment.
It might not come the first night, it might not come in a week, but it’s going to come, that’s the feeling.
“Sometimes it’s just not a guy’s night or some certain series just don’t fit guys for whatever reason, so we got to wait and see how it all filters out,” Nurse said, adding it eventually balances out.
Article Continued Below
“That is what makes these playoffs great. You know there’s someone out there who is going to get the big pinch-hit double in the bottom of the eighth that you weren’t expecting. Or someone bangs in a couple of threes or makes the make the big steal or gets the big blocked shot.”
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps