/VanVleets shot reborn after birth of 2nd child

VanVleets shot reborn after birth of 2nd child

TORONTO — Fred VanVleet broke out in a huge way Tuesday night, scoring 13 points off the bench to help lead a balanced scoring attack for the Toronto Raptors, as they blew out the Milwaukee Bucks 120-102 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The performance, which helped even the best-of-seven series at 2-2, continued a week full of highs for VanVleet.

On Sunday, he helped the Raptors survive a double-overtime thriller to beat the Bucks in Game 3.

On Monday, VanVleet found himself flying to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, for the birth of his second child, Fred Jr.

While he was flying back to Toronto again Tuesday morning to play in Game 4, he had time to reflect on being in the midst of the worst shooting slump of his playoff career.

“It makes you tired,” VanVleet, smiling, said of welcoming a second child. “It gives you a little perspective, I guess, on life. I had a lot of time to think. Had to sit at the hospital all day, had a lot of time to think, obviously a plane ride back.

“It just changes the way you’re looking at things. You are not so down on yourself about everything.”

As it turned out, for both VanVleet and the Raptors, that time alone with his thoughts was just what the doctor ordered.

VanVleet had struggled since the start of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, shooting 7-of-44 overall and 3-of-25 from 3-point range entering Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, he shot 5-of-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from deep — including, somehow, banking one in.

“I think he needed it,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think those type of things kind of relaxed him a little bit.

“He needed one of those games. You know what he needed? That banked 3 to go in. Stuff like that. Just get in some type of rhythm. He played well and made some great plays tonight.

“Sometimes it’s just one or two shots where something happens. It’s all mental sometimes.”

The same could be said for the Raptors as a whole throughout these playoffs. VanVleet’s struggles might have been the most notable, but he was far from the only one who couldn’t buy a basket for much of the past two series.

Tuesday night, though, the dam finally broke.

After being bludgeoned by Milwaukee’s bench for most of the first three games, Toronto’s bench trio of VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka combined to score 48 points and shoot 18-for-36 from the floor. Milwaukee’s main bench players — George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, Malcolm Brogdon and Pat Connaughton — combined to go 7-for-22 overall and 2-for-8 from 3.

The Raptors couldn’t have asked for a better time for this kind of game to happen, either, with the two players who expended the most energy in Sunday’s double-overtime win, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, both looking worse for the wear because of it.

“It was big time,” Leonard said of the balanced production across the roster. “Everybody contributed tonight, knocking down shots, playing great defense.”

For a second consecutive game, much attention was paid to Leonard occasionally coming up limping throughout the proceedings. After looking hobbled early in Game 3 yet finding a way to gut himself through 52 grueling minutes, the most obvious moment in Game 4 came when Leonard completed a dunk and was fouled by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the third quarter.

Leonard came down with his full weight on his right leg and looked to be in pain. But, like in Game 3, he stayed in the game and refused afterward to say he was in pain.

“Feel good,” said Leonard, who finished with 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting in 34 minutes. “Keep going, keep fighting. We have a chance to make history.”

Asked if the minutes from Game 3 caught up with him in Game 4, Leonard passed on answering.

“There’s no excuses,” he said. “You’re playing basketball. We got a win tonight.”

For so much of these playoffs, the Raptors have been getting wins because of Leonard’s heroics. That was the case in both of the previous two games Toronto had played here at Scotiabank Arena — in Game 7 against the Sixers, in which he hit a classic game winner, and in Sunday’s Game 3, when he played through those career-high 52 minutes.

This time, though, the Raptors picked things up on his behalf. And, because they did, this series heads back to Milwaukee as a toss-up.

“We know,” VanVleet said. “We know we have to be better. We see all the stuff. We understand what the narrative has turned into, that it is kind of ‘Kawhi Leonard and The Backup Singers.’

“We understand that. Sometimes it has been like that, and there’s other stuff that goes into that. There’s give and take there. But we have to do the same s— today again in Game 5.”

If they do, the next time the Raptors play in this arena, in Game 6 on Saturday night, they could have a chance to make the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

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