• Gerald Malunga

VanVleet peaking at just the right time

An efficient starting line up wins games but an even more efficient bench wins championships, the difference between champions and challengers over the years has been the strength of bench players ready to deliver when called upon.

Many championship chasing teams have always had one bench player to call upon to make big shots or big plays, the likes of Robert Horry, Manu Ginobili and Shaun Livingston come to mind at the top of one’s head. It appears the title chasing Toronto Raptors have unearthed a useful bench player in Fred VanVleet, if the first four NBA Finals matches are anything to go by.

It might seem far-fetched to compare VanVleet’s performances to the aforementioned legendary sixth men as he is in only his third year in the league and on the cusp of winning his first championship (if the Raptors get over the line) but he has peaked at just the right time for the Canadian franchise. He is aware of the role he plays and what that means for his team, “I know how important I am to this team, to this franchise and I know what I bring to the table, so that's never in question, never in doubt. For me just try to focus on maximizing my potential each night and giving my team the best chance to win and like I said we got to go out there and do it again tomorrow.”

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Prior to the final few games against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors, VanVleet was posting single digit points on a nightly basis in the playoffs, he even recorded two games in which he failed to score any points against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, he has since turned into a useful scoring option for the second unit, often draining big shots in the Finals. He and the Raptors know that Game 5 could be the one that hands Toronto its first ever championship, but this game will be as difficult as the ones that have preceded it, “It gets harder and harder and harder and that's what makes the playoffs so tough, each round gets more difficult and these guys have been very difficult to play against, and it's taken a lot of excellence on our part to try to get it done and nothing's going to change that. We have to continue to take care of what we have been doing and really play at another gear, and we still got room to grow, which is great, this team can get better, we can play better and we look to do that tomorrow night.”

The back-up point guard is currently tallying 12.7 points per game off the bench in the Finals, he is also shooting 34.7 percent from beyond the arc, averaging a current playoff career high 3 assists per game and he has also recorded a positive plus-minus in all four Finals games thus far. Save for Game 4 of the Finals, VanVleet had recorded double-digit points in six consecutive games stretching back to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks.

A nasty gash on his face from an accidental elbow from Livingston in Game 4 prevented him from continuing the game as he also lost a tooth. VanVleet had looked set to record double-digits once again but he was restricted to just 8 points owing to the facial injury. He has been a refreshing scoring alternative of late and he will be a key factor for the Raptors in this series against the Warriors heading into Game 5.

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