Fred VanVleet is a champion once again, this time at basketball’s highest level and in record-setting fashion.
No one had the ball in their hands more in crunch time during the series-deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals than the Wichita State graduate. And no one came up with bigger shots than VanVleet.
VanVleet scored a playoff career-high 22 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, and connected on five three-pointers to help the Toronto Raptors defeat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 Thursday on the road at Oracle Arena to win the series, 4-2, and capture the franchise’s first NBA championship.
“That’s what I do,” VanVleet told ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke after the game. “That’s what I work for all summer. I had the confidence in myself and my teammates had the confidence in me. Kawhi (Leonard) can’t take all of the shots.”
The Rockford, Illinois native averaged 14.0 points in six games, setting the NBA Finals record with 16 three-pointers made off the bench. VanVleet played 32.2 minutes per game off the bench and essentially every second of crunch time for the Raptors.
On top of his scoring, VanVleet was also credited for hounding Warriors superstar Stephen Curry on defense. Curry finished with 21 points on 6 of 17 shooting, as VanVleet outscored him in Game 6.
“It felt like he scored 1,000 points on me,” VanVleet said. “As a defender, you never like getting scored on, so that was tough. And it’s obviously the toughest guy I had to guard for that long every game, all game, a million screens, it’s hard to push and grab, he’s so good at drawing fouls. So I just tried to live up to the challenge and accept the challenge, and hopefully I gained some respect there.”
Respect was certainly shown afterward. Not only from Curry, who complimented VanVleet’s courage, but also from the media. ESPN Radio’s Hubie Brown used his NBA Finals MVP vote on VanVleet, while the other 10 votes were cast for Kawhi Leonard.
“He’s a gamer. He hit some big shots,” Curry said of VanVleet. “Not just in the face of pressure, he hit a lot of daggers that never seemed to panic when the ball was in his hands. And even tonight he hit like three of them that kept the momentum on their side. So obviously saw a lot of bodies on defense, but he was one that took the challenge. And obviously he’s a champion now. So, well deserved.”
VanVleet became the first ex-Shocker to score more than 20 points in an NBA Finals game. He is also the first former WSU player to win an NBA championship since Cliff Levingston won back-to-back titles with the Chicago Bulls in 1991 and 1992, and fourth overall, joining Levingston, and Nate Bowman and Dave Stallworth, teammates on the 1970 New York Knicks championship team.
An NBA championship is the latest addition to a growing list of championships VanVleet has played a role in over his career.
At Wichita State, where he starred from 2012-16, VanVleet led the Shockers to three Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championships, one conference tournament championship and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Final Four and Sweet 16. He received honorable mention on the All-America team three times and won the Valley player of the year award twice.
After going undrafted in the 2016 NBA Draft, VanVleet split time between the Raptors’ NBA squad and their Development League team, the Raptors 905. After the Raptors 905 team lost the first game in the championship series, VanVleet was called in and he responded by averaging 22 points, 6 rebounds and 12.5 assists in two double-digit victories to clinch the D-League title in 2017.
There was no denying winning the NBA title was the most satisfying to VanVleet.
“We have a lot of talent, we’re a very deep team,” VanVleet said. “When that talent works hard and goes out there and pays it forward every day, then you have a chance to be special. And then when you’re tied in and. your coaching staff gives you good game plans, and you go out there and try to execute, and you work together, the sky’s the limit.”
On Thursday, VanVleet delivered the biggest shots during the Raptors’ fourth-quarter rally that knocked out the two-time defending champions.
His three-pointer with 9:06 remaining in the fourth quarter brought the Raptors level with the Warriors, 91-91. Two minutes later, it was VanVleet again knocking down a three, this time to put Toronto in front, 94-93. VanVleet was fouled shooting a three-pointer with 5:39 remaining and calmly sank all three of his free throws to once again tie the Warriors, 99-99.
But the biggest shot of the night came when he ran a pick-and-roll with Pascal Siakam and both Warriors defenders left VanVleet alone at the top of the key. VanVleet drilled the open three-pointer with 3:46 remaining, putting the Raptors ahead for good, 104-101.
VanVleet’s 12 points were the most scored by any player in the fourth quarter of the close-out game.