Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet takes the spotlight.
Context: With Kyle Lowry missing his third straight game with injury, Fred VanVleet stepped up in a big way in Toronto's win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.
In addition to scoring 23 points, tying him with Pascal Siakam for team-high honours, VanVleet dished out nine assists and grabbed five rebounds in his 37 minutes of play. His efforts led the Raptors to their fourth straight victory. They've since lost two in a row, but their 16-17 record has them ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference.
After the game, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse spoke glowingly of VanVleet, saying "he looked like an All-Star tonight."
As impressive as VanVleet was offensively against the 76ers, there was one defensive play he made that stood out for a variety of reasons.
You know what that means - to the film room!
Breakdown: With 12 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Shake Milton runs a pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid at the top of the 3-point line.
VanVleet, who is defending Milton, fights over Embiid's screen while Aron Baynes, who is defending Embiid, drops back to prevent Milton from turning the corner.
Milton is struggling from 3-point range this season, but he's been nearly automatic from midrange, knocking down almost half of his pull-ups from that distance. VanVleet recovers before Milton can even think about pulling-up.
With no room to operate, Milton slips a pass between VanVleet and Baynes. The problem? It appears as though Milton thought Embiid would pop to the free throw line instead of the 3-point line.
The ball still ends up in Embiid's hands, but he has to relocate to the opposite wing to chase down Milton's pass.
DeAndre' Bembry, who started the possession on Ben Simmons but switched onto Matisse Thybulle, shades over to buy Baynes time on the recovery.
This is your reminder that Embiid is shooting a career-best 40.5 percent from 3-point range this season. He's not someone teams can ignore on the perimeter.
Now with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Embiid has to make a play.
The Raptors prepare themselves for what's coming by forming a wall at the free throw line. Baynes picks up Embiid while VanVleet and Bembry park themselves at opposite elbows.
Embiid dribbles towards the right elbow, where VanVleet is stationed. VanVleet made a mental note of where Milton is before Embiid began to attack - you can see him peek over his shoulder in the image above - but his attention is entirely on Embiid as the play develops, probably knowing Terence Davis has him covered if Embiid kicks it out to Milton.
When Baynes bodies Embiid up at the free throw line, VanVleet pounces and almost comes away with the steal.
Embiid recovers the ball, but VanVleet knocks it out of his hands again, this time coming away with the steal. (Notice, by the way, how Davis does have VanVleet covered. Isaiah Joe is open in the corner, but Davis is prepared to rotate back to him if needed).
VanVleet pushes the ball up the court and finds Chris Boucher for a wide open 3-pointer, tying the game at 82 points with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Why it matters: VanVleet has become one of the most disruptive defenders in the NBA.
Following Wednesday's loss to the Miami Heat, VanVleet is averaging 1.7 steals per game on the season, ranking him sixth in the league behind Larry Nance Jr. (1.9), Jrue Holiday (1.9), Jimmy Butler (1.9), Marcus Smart (1.8) and T.J. McConnell (1.8). Because he's appeared in more games than each of them, VanVleet actually leads all players with a total of 55 steals.
VanVleet has also blocked 27 shots on the season. Not only is that already the most he's ever recorded in a single season - his previous career high was 20 blocks, done in 2018-19 - it puts him behind only Boucher (64) for most on the Raptors.
Many of those toe the line between what is a block and a steal...
...but it's still impressive.
To boot, VanVleet is averaging 3.8 deflections per game, ranking him third in the league behind Nance (3.9) and Simmons (3.9). Once again, VanVleet leads the way in total deflections with 125. Simmons (105), Nikola Jokic (103) and Robert Covington (100) are the only other players with more than 100 deflections as of this writing.
What's crazy about VanVleet is he's become one of the league's most disruptive defenders without having a defining physical trait. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 197 pounds with a reported 6-foot-2 wingspan, he doesn't have the height of Simmons or Nance, the strength of Anunoby and Butler or the length of Holiday or Smart. In a league of giants, VanVleet should stand out for his lack of size, and yet he makes the most of everything he has.
It helps that he's one of the smartest defenders in the league. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and he's fearless. It shows on possessions like this, in which he pounces on Embiid, who is one of the most physically dominant players in the NBA at 7-feet and 280 pounds. Many players, especially at VanVleet's position, probably wouldn't have risked getting in Embiid's path.
VanVleet made a similar play in one of Toronto's recent wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, ripping the ball out of Giannis Antetokounmpo's hands on a layup attempt.
That doesn't happen often to Antetokounmpo. He usually overpowers players when he steps foot in the paint. For VanVleet to stop him in his tracks takes remarkable timing, as well as an incredible amount of strength.
This isn't the first time I've written about how much of a menace VanVleet is defensively - his on-ball defence took centre stage the last time we did this - but it's particularly noteworthy right now given that All-Star reserves were announced on Tuesday. This season was harder than ever to come up with a list of who the most deserving reserves are, and while I didn't have VanVleet on my ballot, he was my toughest omission. He's made great strides offensively, but it's his defence that consistently stands out. There are few guards who impact that end of the floor as much as he does on a nightly basis.
Unfortunately for VanVleet, the head coaches didn't vote him in as an All-Star reserve, but it shouldn't take away from the season he's having, especially defensively.
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