‘It’s tough right now’: Raptors’ VanVleet talks individual and team struggles

Fred VanVleet appeared on JJ Redick’s podcast The Old Man and the Three on Tuesday to talk about the search for consistency and identity during what has been a transitional year for the Toronto Raptors.

After losing to the Indiana Pacers on Monday night 122-114, the Raptors traveled back to Toronto for another day of practice and shootaround.

Players reviewed film from the night before, analyzed what went right and what went wrong, and VanVleet, the starting point guard for the team, sat down with player-turned-podcaster Redick to discuss those themes on a more season-wide scale.

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“Some nights the ball finds you and some nights it doesn’t. That’s where I’m struggling this year, the out-of-rhythm games,” VanVleet said to Redick. “I might get a couple catch and shoots, a couple contested shots, off the dribble… and then I get three wide-open ones at the end of the game when we need them.”

VanVleet hadn’t played his best game of the season the night prior, scoring only nine points on an inefficient 3-for-15 from the field and 3-for-12 from deep. It was his first game after missing two prior contests with a back injury, an all-too-common sequence for the former all-star guard this season.

He’s missed eight games this year, somewhat sporadically, with two or three game absences at a time due to an assortment of injuries or illnesses. VanVleet said those injury woes have impacted his shooting of him “probably a lot.” However, he’s trying to contextualize his up-and-down play of him this year.

“I watch the film and say ‘I was 2-for 12 from three and six of them were bombs, three of them were heavily contested by a seven-footer, and I missed three wide-open ones in my 39th minute of the night ,” VanVleet said, going over the shots he takes on a night-by-night basis. “You gotta be able to be fair to yourself.”

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The seventh-year point guard is currently fourth in the NBA in minutes-per-game with 37.0 a night. Teammates Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are second and third on that list, with 37.2 and 37.1 minutes, respectively.

VanVleet is also having his most inconsistent year to date, perhaps discrediting his “steady Freddy” moniker with more up-and-down performances than he might be used to. As of Jan. 6, he sits second-last in the league in field-goal percentage with 37.4 percent.

“The same aggressiveness that makes you great can hurt you sometimes…” VanVleet said. “The same confidence and swagger that I play with to make any shot at any time over anybody — when it’s not going well, the pile-up can happen fast.”

The Raptors as a whole are in the midst of a similar sort of year. The losses have piled up in recent weeks with the team going 4-11 in the last month. Questions about the direction of the team have been a near constant as the trade deadline on Feb. 9 inches closer with each passing game. The next one is Friday on Sportsnet at 7:30pm ET.

“We just have to keep growing and find ways to reinvent ourselves. We’re still trying to find a new identity,” VanVleet said when discussing the Raptors’ down year. “We had one last year which was ‘play hard, cause havoc,’ and it just hasn’t been there for us this year.”

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Toronto is still creating the most opposing turnovers in the NBA with 17.2 per game (they were second in the category last year with 15.8). Despite their loss on Wednesday to the Milwaukee Bucks, they crushed them in the turnover battle, winning that contest 25-8. But it didn’t translate into buckets.

There’s an idea of ​​what the Raptors intend on doing, but the full picture has yet to be painted. However, VanVleet believes it might come in time.

“Being patient. We got hot last year towards the end,” VanVleet said, reminiscing on the team’s 23-11 run last year in the last two months. “There’s rhythm, flow and cohesiveness which we just haven’t had. When it’s clicking it’s really hard to play against, but when it’s not, our margin for error is really small.”

It’s been a different game plan this season for the squad. Last year, VanVleet, especially in the early goings, was running the offense functioning as the primary ball-handler on most possessions. This season though, Siakam has taken over as the primary option for getting the offense going.

Though the results for the All-NBA forward have been “astronomical,” according to VanVleet, the team is still trying to adjust to a less evenly distributed offense. He did, however, take the time to comment more on his superstar teammate and give an indication as to how he’s been able to play at such a dominant level.

“He’s shooting jumpers. Everything else is similar…” VanVleet said about Siakam. “For him to have the footwork for a 1-2 pull-up or a fadeaway spin over the left shoulder, his jump shooting adds another dimension for him and for our team.

“It’s made him pretty much unwatchable.”

Siakam has found his recipe for success so far this season, but the Raptors have yet to put it together. VanVleet has yet to recapture that consistency that turned him into Rockford, Illinois’s finest. But patience, he believes, is the key.

“We just haven’t been able to put it together,” he said.

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