HomeSportsRaptors take advantage of short-handed Lakers as VanVleet slowly works out of...

Raptors take advantage of short-handed Lakers as VanVleet slowly works out of slump

The Toronto Raptors were keyed up to match-up with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Film was studied. Scouting reports were being prepared.

Excited to watch were fans who made their way to Scotiabank Arena hoping to see James and Davis, two of the game’s biggest stars and pillars of the league’s glamour franchise. Lakers jerseys were prominent, and fans had to pay premium prices for the privilege.

Unfortunately Davis had to leave the Lakers game in Cleveland Tuesday with a fever and was unavailable, as was James, who joined his teammates on the bench midway through the first quarter. The official version was that James was sitting out with a sore ankle. 

The reality was James was rested because the Lakers are on the fourth stop in a six-game road trip, and he’s about to turn 38. The Lakers basically said as much before the game, with head coach Darvin Ham saying he’s talked with James about taking Wednesday off before their trip even started.

So, a bummer if you were bringing your kid to see James for the first time or if you’re the one who had to pay for the tickets.

But from the Raptors point of view? From the point of view of say, Fred VanVleet, who has been slumping lately?

The short-handed Lakers represented an opportunity and just the kind of luck a team needs sometimes if they’re going through the doldrums as the Raptors – losers of three of their last four – have been lately.

The Raptors took advantage, taking charge early and never letting the Lakers get inside double figures after the midpoint of the second quarter in a 126-113 win as they improved to 13-12 and the Lakers fell to 10-14.

Toronto was led by Pascal Siakam, who finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, while OG Anunoby added 23 points and six rebounds. But perhaps most promising was VanVleet who put his stamp on the game early and finished with 25 points and seven assists in 30 minutes.

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He had to shoot 8-of-20 to do it, which wasn’t ideal, but if this was the first signs of VanVleet coming out of his slump, the Raptors will take it. Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr. and had 16 and 18 points off the bench, respectively as Toronto shot 44.3 per cent from the floor and 12-of-43  from deep.

The Lakers were held to 42.5 per cent shooting and shot 7-of-33 from deep. Russell Westbrook scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench as one of seven Lakers in double figures. Toronto led in offensive rebounds, 17-10 and in turnovers, 15-11.

VanVleet wasted little time signalling to his teammates, fans, media, and anyone else who has been looking at his shooting splits lately and wondering what’s going on with the all-star point guard from a year ago.

His opening eight minutes were an extended ‘prove-‘em’ as he went through the full menu of shots he’s been struggling with – which is to say, all kinds of them.

He came into the game shooting 5-of-28 on threes in his last four games and 34 per cent for the season and 48.6 per cent inside three feet, which is headed for a career low. But VanVleet stepped into a deep three on his first touch and made it. He then drove into the Lakers paint and pitched out to Siakam for a wide-open three.

VanVleet drove the lane and got fouled. He split the Lakers defence from the wing and finished on lovely reverse. He pulled up for difficult floater and drove all the way to rim and launched a high lay-up over the fingertips of Lakers centre Thomas Bryant. By the time VanVleet sat down he’d systematically gone through every shot in his repertoire and made all of them with varying degrees of difficulty.

He wasn’t done either. The Raptors led 39-31 after the first quarter but had stalled somewhat after starting the game 11-0 as the short-handed Lakers zoned up and the Raptors offence stagnated, especially with VanVleet sitting. The Lakers had cut the Raptors lead to five midway through the second before Toronto started heating up again, with VanVleet in the middle of it. He hit a three in transition, got fouled on another drive, made set up Anunoby for a dunk with a pair of beautiful ball fakes and then hit a pull-up jumper on the baseline.

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It was all part of a 24-3 run that split the game open and sent the Raptors into the half leading 70-47, with VanVleet’s 18 first-half points and five assists figuring prominently.

It was an encouraging taste after an odd week for VanVleet and the team he leads. After a horrible road trip and a discouraging loss to the short-handed Celtics Monday, questions about the team were swirling and VanVleet’s shooting woes were among them. On Monday VanVleet said, somewhat cryptically:  “There’s … a lot going on all across the board … there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in.”

Hmmm.

Then on Wednesday there was a brief brushfire on social media when VanVleet unfollowed all his teammates on Instagram, but it seemed to be much ado about not much. Per sources, VanVleet’s doesn’t do his own social media and the move to trim his followers was a business decision: being seen as having a higher ratio of followers to those his account follows offering a certain amount of cachet. At one point Tuesday VanVleet’s account – which has more than 700,000 followers – was following just five accounts, but later in the day it was in the mid-20s and all of his long-standing teammates were among them.

That it was a story – or at least a disturbance on social media – is an indication that there at least the perception of something being amiss.

The easiest way to calm the waters is to perform. As VanVleet said Tuesday: “I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about.”

There were plenty of encouraging signs, though given the Lakers were short not only Davis and James but also shooting guard Pat Beverly, they didn’t present the sternest test.

The Raptors didn’t put the Lakers away in the third the way they could have. Los Angeles used a 10-3 run midway through the third to trim Toronto’s lead to 15 before the Raptors pushed back and led 97-75 to start the fourth. They were able to keep the Lakers at bay from there.

In the end it wasn’t a vintage VanVleet outing. After his strong first quarter VanVleet shot just 2-of-14 over the rest of the way and his 3-of-12 mark from three won’t do anything to help his percentages – he is now at 8-of-37 from deep over his past six games, 21.6 per cent.

But he did have some strong moments. He looked decisive and determined and his team came out on top. For VanVleet, maybe it’s progress.

Regardless, for the Raptors the wins are all welcome and they all count, even against the ghost Lakers.

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