Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 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: Fred VanVleet is back like he never left.
Despite the long hiatus, VanVleet has hit the ground running in the season restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. In Toronto's opening game against the Los Angeles Lakers, he took a backseat to Kyle Lowry but still finished with 13 points and 11 assists, giving him his seventh double-double of the season. Two days later, VanVleet exploded for a career-best 36 points on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range against the Heat. And in Toronto's win over the Orlando Magic, VanVleet recorded another double-double, this time with 21 points and 10 assists.
Equally as impressive as the numbers VanVleet posted on offence in those games was his defence. He came up with a couple of big-time stops against Miami - it was his deflection on the Heat's final possession that secured the win for the Raptors - and he was his usual disruptive self in Toronto's win over Los Angeles.
There was one particular play in that Lakers game that caught my eye for reasons we'll get into. First, a closer look at what happened.
The play: VanVleet forces Kyle Kuzma into a deep midrange pull-up.
Breakdown: The five Raptors on the court are Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. Lowry is guarding Kuzma and VanVleet is guarding Danny Green, leaving Anunoby on LeBron James, Siakam on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Gasol on Dwight Howard.
Kuzma moves from the corner to the elbow to set a screen on VanVleet. Rather than try to fight through the screen, VanVleet willingly switches onto Kuzma while Lowry switches onto Green.
VanVleet keeps an eye on his man and the ball to prevent Kuzma from slipping backdoor.
Since Kuzma has seven inches and 24 pounds on VanVleet, the Lakers look to exploit the mismatch by feeding him the ball in the post.
Green moves to the other side of the court to draw Lowry away and give Kuzma the space he needs to attack VanVleet with his back to the basket. Kuzma doesn't post up much, but he's been decent on those plays this season, scoring at a rate of 0.94 points per possession to rank in the 59th percentile.
Before Kuzma can even think about making a move, VanVleet pokes the ball away.
Rather than hang back, VanVleet chases Kuzma down to pressure him close to the halfcourt line. Doing so helps shave another second or two off the shot clock. The Lakers are entering hero ball phase of the possession.
With time winding down, Kuzma starts to make a move towards the basket. VanVleet shades him towards the sideline.
With Gasol parked underneath the basket, Kuzma dribbles to the corner and pulls up for a midrange jumper that doesn't come close to going in.
VanVleet makes an already difficult shot harder by reaching out with his left arm, forcing Kuzma to adjust his gather.
Why it matters: "Welcome to the University of Kyle Lowry, where it doesn't matter how big or small you are, we'll teach you how to defend all five positions!"
OK, maybe not all five positions, but at least three, plus some power forwards and centres.
Here we have VanVleet, a point guard listed generously at 6-foot-1, switching onto Kuzma, a 6-foot-8 power forward, not because he has to but because he can. Kuzma isn't a superstar or anything, but he does have a significant size advantage on VanVleet and he's a talented scorer. All things considered, he should've been able to get a better shot against him than a contested midrange pull-up that draws as much of the backboard as the rim.
It goes to show a couple things. First, why VanVleet is a sneaky All-Defense candidate this season.
I wrote not long ago about how effective of an off-ball defender VanVleet has been this season. (Not only does he rank third in steals per game, he leads the league in deflections per game). His on-ball defense hasn't gotten quite the same amount of attention, but it should. His speed allows him to guard the shiftiest of point guards and he's both strong and smart enough to guard bigger players on switches. He also has great instincts, shown here by him poking the ball away without fouling and knowing when to pressure Kuzma and when to back off. There are very few players you ever have to worry about VanVleet guarding.
That leads me to the second point, which is that it shows how Toronto has been able to build a top-five defense despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and starting two point guards backcourt.
It shouldn't work in today's NBA that is obsessed with wing-heavy lineups, but you'd be hard pressed to find another team that has two guards who are as scrappy as VanVleet and Lowry. Based on data collected by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, the only "point guards" who have been more versatile on defence than Lowry this season are Ben Simmons, Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook. (The reason point guards is in quotations, by the way, is that you can argue that Simmons, Doncic and Westbrook aren't really point guards. If that's an argument you want to make, then I suppose you can say Lowry has been the most versatile defender at point guard this season).
VanVleet isn't quite as versatile as Lowry is, but again, he's capable and comfortable guarding bigger players. Is he someone the Raptors want guarding someone like Kuzma for an entire game? Maybe not. But in a pinch, he can hold his own against pretty much anyone.
The result: Toronto doesn't have a single weakness on defence in their starting lineup. Teams should be able to exploit Lowry and VanVleet because of their size, but they can't because they both play much bigger than their height. Pair them with Anunoby and Siakam, both of whom are among the best wing defenders in the league, as well as a genius anchor in Gasol, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and it's nearly impossible to play one of them off the court. Either Lowry and VanVleet are using their speed to pressure the ball or they're flying around as help defenders, coming up with deflections, steals and drawing charges.
Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore had this to say about Lowry during the Lakers game, but it may as well apply to VanVleet:
It's annoying af 🤣🤣🤣. #TeamEducationReform https://t.co/hoViliWMUq- Baze (@24Bazemore) August 2, 2020
Annoying isn't usually used as a term of endearment, but it might be the most apt description of VanVleet's game, especially when it comes to his defence. Because as soon as someone thinks they have an advantage on him, he has a way of getting under their skin and making them do things they don't want to do.
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