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Fred VanVleet's range opens up Nets' defense

Toronto Raptors celebrate a basket by guard Fred

Toronto Raptors celebrate a basket by guard Fred VanVleet  during the first half of Game 1 of an NBA first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Aug. 17, 2020. Credit: AP/Kim Klement

When the Raptors won the NBA title last season, they were built around the talents of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Since he left as a free agent, the Raptors have become more balance, but the Nets learned in their Game 1 loss that they better pay extra attention to guard Fred VanVleet, who went off on them for 30 points and added 11 assists.

VanVleet is known for his ability to drive and make plays, but he torched the Nets from long range, making 11 of 15 shots, including eight of 10 three-pointers. Most impressive is that three or four of his threes came from close to 30 feet out. Overall, the Raptors shot 50 percent from three (22 of 44).

Following practice on Tuesday, VanVleet explained that, when he was out with a thumb injury last season, he worked on extending his range. “In the playoffs, it’s a little bit harder to get your shot off and guys are flying around a little bit more,” VanVleet said. “If you can knock it down from distance, it makes it that much harder for the defense to run out to you.

“Sometimes, you catch them off guard or you avoid that couple extra inches of hand to contest. I’m just trying to find good looks, and I feel I worked myself into good positions where I feel comfortable at that distance. Anything to get my shot off.”

During his first three NBA seasons, VanVleet came off the bench in a sixth man role. But since Leonard’s departure, he has become a full-time starter and has turned into one of the most improved players in the league while averaging 17.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.9 steals and shooting 39.0 percent from deep, all career-highs.

“It was just more opportunity and more time on the floor and more chances to show what you can do and being in more of a scoring role versus coming off the bench and trying to run the show,” VanVleet said. “This is a different feel from being that first guy off the bench.”

If VanVleet continues to  shoot and hit from long distance in Game 2 Wednesday afternoon, it’s going to put the Nets’ defense in a tough position because they must respect his ability to drive and create. “He’s a very good player, very underrated,” Nets guard Tyler Johnson said. "When you’ve got a bunch of guys like that, you have to live with some stuff. Them hitting shots that far, when you’re in a rhythm, shooting those shots feels a little bit better than if you’re getting pressured the entire game. We have to do a better job of running them off some of those comfortable ones early to take them out of their rhythm.”

VanVleet helped the Raptors build a 33-point second-quarter lead. After watching film, even Nets coach Jacque Vaughn was impressed by VanVleet’s range.

“We can be into the ball a little bit more to give him a better feel [of defensive pressure],” Vaughn said, “but we do have to balance those guys turning the corner and getting into our paint and creating foul opportunities. We will give them different looks so that open three, even from deep, doesn’t look as open.”

To the Nets’ credit, they fought back to get within nine points in the fourth quarter, but a pair of VanVleet threes sparked the Raptors’ clinching run.

“We knew they weren’t going to lay down,” VanVleet said of the Nets. “That’s a tough team, and they were going to make a run. In that fourth quarter, I was trying to knock a couple down and keep them at distance. I was able to find a couple good looks, and they went in for me.”

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