Entering the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Pelicans, VanVleet was having one of his tougher shooting nights. Even with the defense keyed in on him more thanks to his ever-rising reputation, he still managed to find his share of good looks via heady relocation and adroit timing.
“Man, he took Kyle Lowry’s spot now. He’s captain, court captain,” Jonas Valanciunas told reporters post-game with a smile. “I think he’s playing at an all-star level, and he’s proved that he can be a leader on the court and off the court. He’s a vocal leader. I remember him when I was with the Raptors. He was starting to become a vocal leader; right now he has that freedom and I think he’s a really smart guy who can lead by example.”
Asked JV about Fred VanVleet playing at an all-star level:
"Man, he took Kyle Lowry's spot now." pic.twitter.com/OA4BdOHf0V
— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) January 10, 2022
Luckily for the Toronto Raptors, Pascal Siakam (who’s been playing like the all-star-level guy he is as his health has returned) had another spectacular night, helping to keep his club afloat in the minutes that Fred VanVleet wasn’t on the floor—something that’s been an issue all season long.
When VanVleet stepped back onto the hardwood at the 8:15 mark, the Raptors had a six-point advantage that the Pelicans, as they managed to do all night long, fought back to erase. During that time, VanVleet freed himself up for a multitude of quality shots, but just couldn’t get anything to go down. He then wound up forcing a bad pass on a pick-and-roll that led to a turnover and eventual bucket for New Orleans.
Then, a shift. As Fred VanVleet has done an innumerable amount of times during his basketball career, he exhibited his incomprehensible mental fortitude in tangible fashion, coming out of the timeout to immediately drain a 30-foot triple to retake the lead. He then proceeded to blast the Pelicans with impossible shot after impossible shot, hitting two more gigantic threes (one from the logo and one a mean step-back) before sealing the deal in Kyle Lowry-esque fashion by snatching an offensive rebound amongst the trees with under 20 seconds to go.
“We got ourselves in a situation there where we needed [VanVleet] to make some big plays and obviously he made about three really huge ones in a row,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “Big shots, man, big shots. Great will—will to win.”
In a season where there is so much talk (understandably so) about both his raw and advanced statistics, perhaps one of the most underrated elements of VanVleet’s game that’s rocketed him to a superstar level is that trademark resiliency, his stubbornness and roaring internal flame that beget the “Bet on yourself” attitude. And it’s on the nights when things haven’t come so easily, when he’s missed some looks he should’ve hit, that it reveals itself most clearly and makes his inevitable bounce-backs so spectacular.
Sure, the numbers are great, but they’re only part of the story. What makes VanVleet so special is more than a larger role and improved playmaking—it’s his uncanny knack for rising to the occasion when things are at their most dire, when the weight is heaviest upon his shoulders.