How big a lead does a team have to have on the Warriors before its fans can feel comfortable? Twenty points with two minutes left? Fifteen points with 30 seconds to go? To me, it didn’t feel like the Raptors had Game 1 locked up until they were actually dribbling out the final ticks, up nine with the shot clock turned off and the Warriors waving the white flag. But if there was a moment in Toronto’s 118-109 victory that signaled to their fans,“Everything’s going to be alright. They got this,” it was Fred VanVleet’s miracle shot with three-and-a-half minutes to play that put the Raptors up by 12.
Guarded by Klay Thompson with the shot clock about to buzz, the Raptors’ backup point guard flung the ball desperately toward the basket from just inside the arc. The ball banked off the backboard, rolled one full rotation, then sat on top of the rim for a brief moment before dropping through to ignite the crowd. When this kind of shot is falling, there’s nothing the Warriors can do.
With 15 on the night, VanVleet was only the Raptors’ fourth-leading scorer, but in ways both big and small, he helped keep the Warriors at bay. While the former Wichita State Shocker was more of a burden than a producer in the first half of these playoffs, in Toronto’s last four wins he’s struck fear into the hearts of his opponents, going 15-of-21 from three-point range while the team goes +76 with him on the court (compared to +39 overall). In another key possession that essentially clinched Game 1, VanVleet drove with the shot clock expiring (again) and drew a foul on Draymond Green. He’d hit both free throws to restore a double-digit Raptors lead.
Probably more important than his scoring, however—and this is true for basically every Raptor—was VanVleet’s defense. Toronto held Golden State to a playoff-low 34 field goals on Thursday, and the way VanVleet stalked Steph Curry was a massive part of that success. This stat, on a night where Curry scored 34, is scarcely believable.
The dude was superglue on the perimeter, and if he sold out to stop a Steph three, a bigger man would help out to prevent any easy buckets. Here’s a particularly fun sequence from the end of the first quarter, showing off VanVleet’s tireless ability to frustrate Curry out of the areas where he’s most lethal.
During the postgame, the Warriors undersold the seriousness of their first series-opening loss since they played the Thunder in 2016, saying they just needed a night to figure out a Raptors team they hadn’t seen at full health earlier in the season.
“I think that the biggest thing coming in is we really didn’t feel like we knew this team very well,” Steve Kerr said afterwards. “So it’s going to be really good for us to have a game on tape where we can really pick it apart and see what we can do better.”
If they didn’t know Fred VanVleet as a threat to their title hopes, they sure as hell do now.