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Raptors need VanVleet to return to top form with tough stretch approaching

TORONTO — It was a reset. A break. A chance to breathe, reflect and come back to work with a fresh sense of purpose, optimism, and appreciation.

The NBA season is relentless and can grind down even the most resolute. When the all-star break came and it happened to overlap with the pending birth of his third child, a baby daughter named Layla, Fred VanVleet found himself with one of the longest mid-season pauses of his career.

No games, no practices, no injuries to tediously rehabilitate, just lots of time with his older kids — daughter Sanaa, five, and son Fred Jr., who famously was born during the Eastern Conference Finals of the Raptors’ championship run — and waiting.

Layla arrived just after the all-star break. VanVleet missed three games in all and was away from work for two weeks. No trips, no travel, just hanging around the house.

“It was a real break. Definitely the most time I’ve had off like that in the middle of the season,” VanVleet said the other day. “To be home, I got to spend my [30th] birthday at home, obviously new baby and stuff like that, it was just good family time. Rest and recovered my body — I had my trainer with me. I was pretty much working out every day. I took one day off, Wednesday, I think. We played Tuesday [Feb 14]. Took Wednesday off. And then I was pretty much working every day until we had to go to the hospital for the baby.”

And that part? Smooth.

“It was a good birth … by the time you get to your third, you’re just rolling with the punches at that point,” said VanVleet, joking that he and his partner Shontai will now have to flip from one-on-one coverage to zone. “Everything isn’t a surprise or a scare. Baby came home happy and healthy. We were happy.”

Can the good feelings extend to the floor, is the question.

Saturday night’s return matchup with the Washington Wizards will be VanVleet’s third game back and it’s safe to say the Raptors need him all the way back. He’s 6-of-28 from the floor and 3-of-20 from three so far. He’s counted 17 assists and just three turnovers. Even during the Raptors’ disappointing loss to the Wizards on Thursday, VanVleet managed to be plus-15 while playing 40 minutes in what ended up being an 11-point loss, which is tough to do, when you think about it.

VanVleet’s shaken off bad shooting performances more than once this season — from Jan. 1 to the all-star break he was averaging 21.3 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 36 per cent from three, or within range of his numbers during his all-star season a year ago.

He should be fine.

The challenge for VanVleet and the rest of the Raptors will be keeping what were some good feelings going after Toronto reeled off eight wins in 10 games, their strongest stretch of the season.

They’ve now lost two of their last three — a win against Chicago sandwiched between concerning losses to Cleveland on Sunday and Washington — and have a tough stretch coming up including games at Denver, at the Clippers and at the Lakers on this current five-game trip.

Prior to Thursday’s game when we spoke, VanVleet felt like things had finally turned. The worst of a tough season for him personally, and for the team in general, had passed. It was time for a fresh start and a fast finish.

“I think so. More than anything, the way the season has gone and not being as successful as we’d like and me struggling early on, it’s just a mental reset, more than anything,” he said. “You miss the game and miss practice and miss the guys. That’s really what it boiled down to for me.

“After the first couple days, I was ready to get back to it. I think that’s a good feeling to have. Knowing what’s in front of us, it’s really kind of simple: lock in and win every game or put yourself in a messed-up situation. We’ll be playing playoff mentality for the rest of the season.”

That didn’t happen Thursday. The starters came out and let Kyle Kuzma — the Wizards leading scorer and a top-line item on Toronto’s scouting report — score 10 quick points to start the game on the way to a 30-point night.

“We didn’t execute enough of the schemes, right from the jump,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “They had some of their best players taking open shots and driving right to the basket from the start of the game. That kind of told the story. We had some really good stretches, a bunch of stretches of a lot of consecutive stops.

“But they had us back on our heels for most of the night. They were physical. They competed better. They deserved to win.”

Even if VanVleet finds his jumper by Saturday, the Raptors — now tied with the Wizards for the ninth and 10th spots in the Eastern Conference — have other questions that need answering.

Yes, the presence of Jakob Poeltl has been an absolute tonic. In eight games he’s been everything the Raptors could have hoped for when they made the move to acquire the pending free agent from the San Antonio Spurs.

He’s averaging 15.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 blocks, 2.0 steals and shooting 76.1 per cent from the floor in 27.6 minutes a game in his second tour as a Raptor. Toronto is nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s sitting. It’s hard for a role player to be more efficient or impactful than what he’s brought to Toronto since arriving from San Antonio.

But the addition of Poeltl to the starting lineup and the Raptors at full health for once should have also bolstered the team’s bench. Gary Trent Jr. was moved from the starting lineup once VanVleet came back, and Precious Achiuwa was replaced once O.G. Anunoby returned from a nine-game absence with a wrist injury.

Instead, Trent Jr. and Achiuwa seem to have had tough times adjusting to their new roles and the bench hasn’t provided the punch Toronto is looking for. Trent Jr. had one of his worst games of the season Thursday. He was 2-of-7 from the floor and casual at best defensively, particularly in transition where he did a lot of watching rather than actively trying to slow multiple Wizards’ fast breaks. He was minus-26 in 17 minutes.

Achiuwa’s play had tailed off noticeably since returning to the bench. He’s averaging 5.8 points a game in 16.5 minutes. He hasn’t had a steal and he’s blocked just one shot. He had 10 points against Detroit and had seven, four and two points in the subsequent games.

In his previous 19 games (11 starting, eight off the bench) since regaining his fitness after missing 24 games with an ankle sprain, Achiuwa had been a revelation averaging 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds but also 1.1 steals and nearly a block per game. He scored in double figures in 17 of the 19 games, a level of consistency he’d never approached before.

He’ll need to find out what’s missing. Trent Jr. too, as neither are expected to join the starters any time soon, barring injury.

“Where the game went [Thursday] you would say [the] guys coming in weren’t quite ready to go in either half,” said Nurse, referencing the jump the Wizards got on the Raptors to start the second and fourth quarters. “We need more out of those guys, and it needs to be more defensively. We’re gonna get it organized correctly in our thought process.”

Before the Raptors’ two-game set began Thursday, VanVleet was able to see the big picture. Some time away offering perspective.

“I think we’re just building it back up,” he said. “We don’t ever want to talk about it but we’re in the middle of it. We’ve got to keep pushing and try to figure it out. Adding pieces as we go. Now we got Jak, adding Will [Barton] off the bench. Whether he plays 30 minutes or not, just having that type of player there in case of whatever you need is a big upgrade for our team.

“We’ve just got to keep building and level up and balancing it out. We’ll see more success that way.”

That’s the long view, taken with the benefit of some rest and time away. The challenge is the Raptors have 18 games left in a season they are desperately trying to get their hands around but always seem to be on the verge of slipping out of their fingers.


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