NBA: Fred VanVleet takes center stage, Raptors grab conference finals lead
Toronto 105, Milwaukee 99
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Fred VanVleet exploded for 21 points Thursday to help the Toronto Raptors clip the Milwaukee Bucks 105-99 and take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Finals.
But, VanVleet is no stranger to big moments. At Auburn High School, he led the Knights to third place in the IHSA Class 4A tournament. At Wichita State, he played in four NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four as a freshman.
Perhaps those moments prepared him for Thursday. Regardless, his latest performance put Toronto in prime position to close things out on Saturday night and advance to the NBA Finals. According to stats, winners of Game 5 of a 2-2 best-of-seven series go on to win the nearly 83 percent of the time.
Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. In plus/minus, though, Leonard was just +3. VanVleet, who played 37 minutes Thursday, led everyone with a +28.
“It’s turned around for me a little bit these last two games,” VanVleet told reporters after the game. “It feels like I am getting more open looks. And as you make them, your teammates start to look for you more and more and the game just kind of opens up all at once. And being tied up 2-2 and having an opportunity to come in here to try to steal one was on our minds.”
Since 2000, when the NBA began tracking plus/minus, VanVleet, who was 7-9 from behind the arc Thursday, is the only player to shoot better than 80 percent on three-pointers and have a +25 or greater plus/minus in back-to-back playoff games.
The fact that he’s played so well, while traveling back and forth to Rockford to witness the birth of his second child, and first son, has made him a national story.
“Our due date was May 31, so we knew it would be close–that it would be right around that time,” VanVleet said. “My daughter came three weeks early so we were expecting it to be any day now. And Monday morning, I thought I’d have a nice day off at home in Toronto and I got the call. So, I started running around trying to find if I could get on a plane. I made it to Rockford about 3 p.m. I spent the rest of the day at the hospital, and (Fred Jr.) came at 9:30.”
Saturday’s game is at 7:30 p.m., in Toronto.