With his historic night in the books, the raucous locker room celebration over and his place in Raptors history secure, Fred VanVleet nailed the reason it is hard to feel anything but admiration and joy for him.
After trying to shrug off a question about why he elicits such respect, why everyone who knows him in so happy for his success, VanVleet offered the Essence Of Fred.
“When you play with a pure heart and a clear conscience and a clear soul, some good things happen for you, and your teammates and your brothers will be happy for you,” he said. “That’s just a family thing. You’ve got to be able to be happy for other people before other people can be happy for you. And that’s all it is.”
Maybe, but it’s more than that.
It’s his personality, the way he handles himself, the way he has worked his way from undrafted kid to NBA all-star potential, and it’s a story that should resonate with many.
His brilliance Tuesday night — a franchise record 54 points, a career-best 11 three-pointers, an ability to do all that without an iota of selfishness in a 123-108 win over the Orlando Magic — was just the latest, best chapter in a wonderful story.
But what it did was give others a chance to talk about him. And who he is.
“Y’all know how I feel about him,” Kyle Lowry said after VanVleet joined DeMar DeRozan (52), Vince Carter (51) and Terrence Ross (51) as the four Raptors to crack the half-century mark in a game. “That’s my little brother, man, and I’m proud of him.
“I seen DeMar sent out the tweet saying I was too old to get it, and I am. But my two guys, DeMar and Freddie, have the records, and even Terrence is in there, and I was able to witness all three of those 50-point games. They all are special to me.
“Tonight is really special, because it came from a kid who was undrafted, worked his way to an NBA player and an NBA starter, and possibly this year an all-star and possibly an all-defensive player. That’s what makes it really special.”
It sounds inconceivable but VanVleet’s record scoring night felt an awful lot like just another game. Nothing forced. Nothing pressed. No highlight reel stretches of total domination. Just a wonderful, amazing, fun evening.
“He legit was like, ‘Yo, y’all, keep playing, we just got to keep playing,’ and the way we were playing tonight everybody was looking for theirs, and it wasn’t forced to him,” Lowry said. ”Everything was in rhythm and in the flow of the game.”
“No disrespect to the Magic but I mean, for most of those I was open, (the shots) were in rhythm,” VanVleet said. “They were clean looks. They were within the offence.
“I even told the guys, ‘You guys keep playing.’ I could feel them start to look for me to the point where they weren’t looking at the rim any more. I wanted to win more than I wanted 50 points. (I was) just trying to continue to play with a pure heart and let the game come to me, and I was rewarded for that.”
DeRozan was one of the first to reach out to VanVleet with a private FaceTime conversation immediately after the game. The former record-holder also offered congratulations on Twitter: “Congrats to my brotha Freddy V!”
VanVleet said that, in his chat with DeRozan, he was reminded he “was gonna get cussed out if I didn’t beat his record.”
“We’ve had that conversation a few times when I’ve had big games and I’ve had a chance to go for it.” VanVleet said. “In the past I’ve kind of shied away from being thirsty, so tonight, I just tried to keep my foot on the gas a little bit more.”
VanVleet’s 11 threes were the most by a player in the NBA this season and his eight makes in the first half were the most in Raptors history. He finished one off Donyell Marshall’s team record of 12 for a game.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, VanVleet’s points were the most by an undrafted player, eclipsing the 53 that Houston’s Moses Malone scored against San Diego in 1982.
“I mean it’s incredible to be an undrafted guy and to do that. It really is. It’s incredible,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
The astonishing thing was how VanVleet did it all in the normal course of the game; he took the shots that came to him and made them at a rate that he never had before. His 54 points came on just 23 shots in just 37 minutes.
“He usually gets forced into a couple late shot-clockers, he’s kind of one of our bailout guys there, but I’m not so sure he forced anything,” Nurse said. “Maybe one or two at the rim, but he’s making a hard drive and that’s what ends up being open. Yeah, that’s pretty good — the 54 points on 23 shots.”
And it was hardly surprising that VanVleet said the lasting memory he’ll have of the night — aside from the game ball that Lowry secured for him — was having the chance to really celebrate with the guys he always calls “brothers.”
“Probably just celebrating with my teammates and seeing them be happier for me than I am for myself,” he said. “They were more excited all night than I was and that’s a testament to this group and this team and the direction that we’re going and just the love we have for one another.
“The win was big, for sure, but just those moments, it’s hard to kinda get together with all these COVID protocols and things like that, the team vibe, but moments like that bring us all closer.”
- More than offence: His astonishing shooting night notwithstanding, VanVleet was his usual defensive self as well.
With the Raptors up 14 points and cruising to the buzzer at the end of the third quarter, VanVleet hustled the length of the floor to strip Terrence Ross of the ball on a layup at the rim.
It was the kind of no-thought hustle play VanVleet makes as a matter of course and shows the kind of all-out competitor he is.
He also had two other steals and was one off his career high with three blocked shots.
“He’s a winner, simple as that,” Lowry said. “He wants to win, and he wants to help his team win at the highest of levels. That’s how he’s been special. He’s been a guy that just plays hard and do whatever it takes to win basketball games.”
- Playing with pace: If there was one thing Nurse wanted to see, it was more pace in transition, for the Raptors to get out and run against an injury-ravaged Magic team to wear them down.
It hasn’t been a constant this season.
“I think on certain nights it’s at a higher level than others, but we got room for improvement there,” Nurse said before the game. “We need a little more centre-of-the-floor speed and I’d like to see more throw-aheads. I would like to see the guys who get the rebounds or the point guards who bring it getting it up the side as quickly as possible.”
His point was made as the Raptors had 18 fast-break points in the first half.
- In the conversation: Orlando was without forward Aaron Gordon, who’ll miss at least a month with a sprained ankle, but he was central to part of the conversation. Kyle Lowry was retroactively assessed a Flagrant 1 foul for a box-out he had on Gordon’s in Sunday’s game.
Magic coach Steve Clifford called it a “dangerous play at any level of basketball” before the game.
Lowry had backed into the taller, heavier Gordon to keep him off the boards, a play the league deemed excessive.
“It didn’t look excessive to me,” Nurse said. “It’s not easy for a smaller guy, six-foot-one or whatever, to block out a 6-8 or (6-10) guy with considerably more weight and size.”
“I think (Lowry) goes down there and tries to do the best he can, he’s just trying to make a good, solid, tough play on that.”