By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Fred VanVleet will be on basketball’s biggest stage Thursday night after helping the Toronto Raptors advance to the NBA Finals.
The Raptors advanced by winning fours straight against the Milwaukee Bucks to capture the NBA Eastern Conference 4-2.
Saturday in Toronto, VanVleet played 34 minutes and chipped in 14 points off the bench, going 4-5 from three-point land, helping to send Milwaukee home for the summer by score of 100-94.
“We were a little antsy at first,” VanVleet said. “But then I think we worked ourselves into the game, went on cruise control for a little bit then took it up another notch.”
The Bucks controlled the pace early, jumping out to a 31-18 lead in first quarter and led by 15 in the third. But it was Toronto in the fourth as the Raptors outscored the Bucks 29-18 to punch their ticket to the final series.
Coming from behind seems to be part and parcel for Toronto’s postseason. Each of its three series was littered with struggles followed by offensive surges that kept them going through the bracket. It’s also been clear the Raptors are a better team when VanVleet is on the floor.
“We know that every time we step on the floor we have a chance,” he said. “And we dropped those first two [games] but we really locked it in and really kicked into gear to get four straight.”
Getting those four straight included a 21-point explosion from VanVleet last Thursday in a pivotal Game 5 that saw the Raptors escape with a 105-99 road win packed with plenty of big moments. VanVleet is no stranger to big moments, however. 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. So it seemed fitting for he third-year pro go 7-9 from behind the arc.
Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in Game 5. In plus/minus, though, Leonard was just +3. VanVleet, who played 37 minutes, 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, 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 on another level.
“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.”
The Raptors face the Golden State Warriors at home Thursday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It’s Golden State’s fifth straight appearance and Toronto’s first in franchise history.