Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

Fred VanVleet balls of steel.0 - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

When the shot clock is about to expire, the Raptors’ diminutive point guard is at his best.

If the 2019 Toronto Raptors are about to become the most unlikely NBA champion since the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, then Fred VanVleet is a better version of J.J. Barea: an undrafted, pugnacious, series-altering mighty mouse whose team would already be on vacation if not for their consistently bold and unforeseeable contributions.

In the first 15 games of these playoffs, VanVleet averaged four points in 20 minutes. He shot 26 percent from the floor, 19 percent from beyond the arc, and the Raptors were outscored in nine games with him on the court. Up until that point, he was the least effective rotation player in the entire playoffs. (Out of everyone who averaged at least 20 minutes per game, only DeMarre Carroll had a lower field goal percentage and only Jared Dudley tallied fewer points.)

Since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet’s scoring is up to nearly 14 points per game in a dozen more minutes. He’s drilled 53 percent of his shots and 54 percent of his threes. No player has made more threes than VanVleet’s 25 since May 21, and no player has registered a plus/minus more favorable than his whopping +83.

But the most remarkable feat of VanVleet’s run is his success rate under duress. Nearly a third of his shots over the past eight games have been launched with four or fewer seconds on the shot clock; his effective field goal percentage on them is an impossible 58.3. These are the hardest shots in basketball for a variety of reasons, yet, in the biggest games of his life, VanVleet has converted them with the stoicism of a statue. (In these playoffs, Kawhi Leonard is the only player who’s taken more late clock shots than VanVleet.)

Each one of these shots is a spike strip for the opponent’s momentum. The most deflating thing any team can endure is when 20 seconds of intense defensive effort, communication, and discipline yield no reward. VanVleet is the source of enough of these sequences to make you question if/when he sold his soul to the devil. It’s hard to see how he can sustain that shooting over time, but at this point, nobody should be that surprised when the shots go in.

VanVleet pumpfake 3 - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

Shots hoisted late in the shot clock are nothing new for VanVleet. During the regular season, only Shelvin Mack had them account for a higher percentage of his total field goal attempts (minimum 50 shots). VanVleet wasn’t a marksman with that higher sample size, but in the postseason, he’s been a sorcerer.

VanVleet pull up 2 - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

It helps that VanVleet isn’t sped up under pressure. He has an innate ability to process the clock, size up the defense, and still squirm his way into a decent look. In the play below, he caught the ball with seven seconds on the clock and immediately flowed into a pick-and-roll with Marc Gasol. A beat after Golden State switched the screen, VanVleet brought Kevon Looney out of his defensive stance with a quick hop back behind the arc, then crossed over for a right-handed finish. He looked comfortable under the pressure of a ticking time bomb.

VanVleet floater - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

Even though VanVleet never takes his foot off the gas, he always operates under control, a characteristic he’s held since his four-year ride as the floor general of Wichita State’s most successful era. On this bucket from Game 1, he curved around Serge Ibaka’s screen, then, upon realizing DeMarcus Cousins positioned himself in no man’s land trying to defend the pick-and-roll, immediately went off the bounce for a lefty layup.

VanVleet Boogie - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

This magical poise explains why good things happen when VanVleet is on the floor. (Only Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have a better plus/minus in the clutch in these playoffs.) But out of everything he brings to the table, that fearless ability to make a quick, pivotal decision has been most important. There’s an indescribable advantage for a team that can bring someone off the bench who desperately wants to take every big shot, regardless of how burdensome it might be. Watch how instead of staying in the corner, VanVleet scampered up the sideline to make himself available for Leonard’s kickout.

FVV move to get open - Fred VanVleet is the shot clock king

That exact three-ball will be lost to history, but VanVleet’s general shot-making under the game’s toughest conditions, on its biggest stage, won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

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