Fred VanVleet became the first Wichita State Shocker to play in the NBA Finals in more than two decades Thursday when his Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 118-109 at home in Game 1.
But of the five Shockers who have reached basketball’s biggest stage, VanVleet is poised to play the largest role.
On Thursday, VanVleet played in 33 minutes off the bench and poured in 15 points on 5 of 8 shooting. The Raptors outscored the Warriors by 11 points, the best plus-minus of any player in the game, while VanVleet was on the court.
VanVleet has played a pivotal role this season — he averaged career-highs in points (11.0), assists (4.8) and minutes (27.5) — on the first Raptors team to reach the NBA Finals. None of it has surprised Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who showed his confidence in VanVleet before Game 1.
“I’m not too worried about Freddie,” Nurse told reporters. “Freddie’s a ice water in his veins type of guy. He took a midmajor school to the Final Four. He took a midmajor school to 35-0. He’s kind of playing better as this thing’s going on.”
VanVleet also delivered one of the most memorable shots of the game with the shot clock dwindling on a late fourth-quarter possession. He had to hoist a 20-foot jumper over the outstretched hands of Klay Thompson and the shot kissed off the glass, swirled around the rim, bounced out of the rim and then fell back through the net to extend the Raptors’ lead to 110-98 with 3:21 remaining.
“It’s just about going out there and performing on the highest stage,” VanVleet told reporters after the game. “This is what you work for all year, all summer. Now it’s time to go out there and let loose and have fun. It’s a good win, but we still have a long way to go.”
VanVleet is the first WSU player to reach the NBA Finals since Antoine Carr played for the Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. Other Shockers to reach the Finals included Cliff Levingston with the Chicago Bulls in 1992 and 1993 and Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman with the New York Knicks in 1970.
The national spotlight has found VanVleet since his near-perfect shooting following the birth of his second child, Fred Jr., on May 20. In the three games that followed, all Raptors’ wins to close out an Eastern Conference finals victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, VanVleet combined to make 82.4 percent (14 of 17) of his three-pointers and average 16 points off the bench.
That hot shooting continued on Thursday, as VanVleet canned 5 of 8 shots.
“Obviously I was struggling a little bit and trying to work myself out of that,” VanVleet told reporters after the game. “I made a couple of shots in the last series, and then it builds and builds. If you’re a hot player you’re probably going to play more minutes, which comes with more opportunity. I’m just trying to capitalize on that and make open shots when I get them and make plays when I need to make plays.”
His legend grew even more on Thursday, not because of his 15 points, but because of his defense on Warriors’ superstar Stephen Curry. According to Second Spectrum data, Curry scored just two points on the 29 possessions VanVleet was guarding him. The Warriors outscored the Raptors by two in Curry’s 15 minutes without facing VanVleet, but in the 25 minutes the former Shocker was guarding Curry, the Raptors outscored the Warriors by 11.
That continued a trend from the one game the two faced off against each other, as VanVleet held Curry to just four points on 39 possessions of man-to-man defense in the regular season.
But when asked after about his performance in the biggest win in the franchise’s history, VanVleet gave his typical even-keeled response.
“It’s one win,” VanVleet said. “Nobody’s overreacting. One step closer to where we want to go. We’ve got to go out on Sunday and lace them up again.”
Game 2 in Toronto is at 7 p.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on ABC.
Here were some of the best tweets about VanVleet’s performance on Thursday: