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One Play: Raptors' Fred VanVleet showing signs of being a midrange assassin – NBA CA

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Welcome to “One Play!” Throughout the 2021-22 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: VanVleet had his best game of the season to date in Toronto’s win over the Washington Wizards, marking the team’s fifth straight victory.

In 43 minutes of action, VanVleet led the way with a game-high and season-best 33 points. He was incredibly efficient, shooting 13-for-22 from the field, 3-for-6 from 3-point range and a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line.

It was an impressive performance from start to finish for VanVleet, but there was one particular part of his game that stood out against the Wizards.

You know what that means – to the film room!

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The play:

Breakdown: Pretty simple stuff, here.

VanVleet receives the ball from Gary Trent Jr. with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Standing several feet behind the 3-point line, VanVleet immediately receives a screen from Precious Achiuwa to run a pick-and-roll.

VanVleet generates the bulk of his offence as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. According to NBA.com, he generated 34.0 percent of his offence on those plays last season. That number is up to 37.4 percent through the first couple of weeks of this season, making for one of the higher rates in the league.

VanVleet has been rather efficient, ranking in the 61st percentile with 0.90 points per pick-and-roll possession.

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Knowing VanVleet likes to pull-up from 3, Raul Neto fights over Achiuwa’s screen while Montrezl Harrell extends himself all the way out to the 3-point line.

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VanVleet continues his drive with Neto now on his hip and Harrell retreats to take away the lob to Achiuwa on the roll.

Corey Kispert and Kyle Kuzma provide some extra help by inching off of Trent Jr. and Svi Mykhailiuk on the opposite side of the court.

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The Wizards have successfully prevented Options 1 (a VanVleet pull-up) and 2 (an alley-oop to Achiuwa), but VanVleet quickly throws them for a loop with a well-timed step back.

Neto is able to get a hand up, but VanVleet’s step back gives him the space he needs to get his shot off.

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Why it matters: I’ll let VanVleet explain this one.

“A lot of defences give that shot up, so it’s something that I’ve been working on,” VanVleet responded when asked about his midrange game by TSN’s Kayla Grey. “Every night, I’m just trying to take whatever the defence gives. Some nights it’s setting up others, tonight it was kind of getting my own.”

I touched on VanVleet’s improvement as a midrange shooter following a win over the Milwaukee Bucks last season, but he’s gone to another level to start this season.

POWER RANKINGS: What we’ve learned about Raptors

Get this: VanVleet went 21-for-73 (28.8 percent) on 2-point pull-ups in the 2019-20 season, per NBA.com. In 2020-21, he went 54-for-136 (39.7 percent) on those same shots.

A pretty impressive jump, right? Well, through nine games this season, VanVleet is up to 25-for-43 (58.1 percent) on 2-point pull-ups.

It’s contributed to VanVleet scoring a total of 86 points on pull-ups (50 points from 2-point range and 36 points from 3-point range), putting him behind only Kevin Durant (109) and CJ McCollum (88) for most in the league.

Fred VanVleet’s 2-point pull-ups (NBA.com)
Season FGM FGA FG%
2016-17 7 16 43.8
2017-18 6 25 24.0
2018-19 35 99 35.4
2019-20 21 73 28.8
2020-21 54 136 39.7
2021-22 25 43 58.1

VanVleet almost certainly isn’t going to connect on half of his midrange pull-ups for the entire season – not even Stephen Curry can consistently do that – but the more of a threat he is to score from that distance, the more difficult he becomes to guard.

It’s well known at this point that VanVleet is an excellent 3-point shooter. He came into the NBA as an efficient catch-and-shoot threat and has improved shooting off the dribble from 3-point range in the years since. As I detailed heading into this season, it’s inside the 3-point line where VanVleet has had issues. In addition to not being a volume shooter from midrange, he’s checked out as one of the league’s least efficient scorers from floater range and around the basket.

ONE PLAY: Heat already looking like a Kyle Lowry team

There’s a chance VanVleet will never be a big-time finisher around the basket because of his physical limitations, but embracing the midrange is one way to make up for it.

One, because it gives VanVleet a consistent answer to teams that run him off the 3-point line and play a drop coverage, like so:

Two, because it gives VanVleet something else to go to when he finds himself on an island.

Not that VanVleet is a dominant 1-on-1 scorer, but nobody on the Raptors attempted more shots in the final seven seconds of the shot clock than him last season. He shot 38-for-117 (32.5 percent) from 3-point range and 37-for-102 (36.3 percent) from 2-point range in those situations.

Against the Wizards, VanVleet looked a lot more comfortable creating for himself inside the arc with the shot clock winding down.

Neither this…

…nor this…

…is something we saw much of from VanVleet last season.

It’s still early, of course, but if VanVleet can continue to keep teams honest from midrange, it’ll help take him and the Raptors to new heights.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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Jets offence hitting stride after intense win over Maple Leafs – Sportsnet.ca

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KEN WIEBE — It’s safe to say that deep dive into the offensive game and what needed to improve has yielded some impressive results.

That offensive famine the Winnipeg Jets endured while scoring nine times in seven games has quickly been replaced by an outright onslaught.

On the heels of an eight-goal outburst against the New Jersey Devils, the Jets followed that up with a 6-3 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night.

You can be sure that some folks figured Jets head coach Paul Maurice was simply trying to instill confidence in his charges when he said going into this weekend’s games that in many ways, he felt parts of the offence were better than they’ve ever been.

Instead of worrying about losing six of seven games, the Jets have won three of the past four and improved to 12-8-4 as they get set to host the Carolina Hurricanes to close out this four-game homestand.

Aside from another offensive eruption, the intensity of this contest was one of the topics of conversation, thanks to some bad blood entering the equation during the third period.

Pierre-Luc Dubois got into a wrestling match with Auston Matthews, resulting in coincidental roughing minors that had the two players continue jarring with one another even after they made their way to the penalty box.

Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon got into a spirited scrap with Kyle Clifford and late in the contest, Logan Stanley and Wayne Simmonds dropped the gloves after Simmonds had cross-checked Josh Morrissey.

Another sequence saw Jets defenceman Neal Pionk catch Rasmus Sandin with his leg when he went to check him, which resulted in Jason Spezza taking a run at Pionk when he was falling to the ice and in a vulnerable position.

“Today was just a good hockey game, right? It had a little bit of everything in it,” said Maurice. “There was some energy and emotion, as there should be. This game had some leftovers from games past. It got a little heated out there, but that’s good.”

When two teams play one another 10 times like these two did last season in the North Division, there is bound to be a little extra emotion in the air.

As for Dubois, he’s up to 12 goals and 22 points this season after a two-point night and he showed once again that he’s not intimidated going up against the likes of Matthews.

That swagger is something that continues to serve him — and his teammates — well during this impressive bounce-back campaign.

“He’s a really good player in this league, scored a nice goal, (he’s) got a lethal shot,” said Dubois, when asked about getting involved physically with Matthews. ”Yeah, whatever. You don’t go into a game, I mean, personally I don’t go into a game, I know maybe some guys do, but I don’t go into a game thinking when is my time going to come to fight or whatever. I just go out there and try to be the best player I can for my team. Sometimes it gets a little rough out there, it’s hockey. That’s just the way the game is played.”

Although nobody is campaigning for 10 meetings, this game serves as an example of why it would be great for the Jets and Maple Leafs to have more than just a home-and-home series each season.

The other narrative that has quickly shifted for the Jets is the one surrounding the power play.

After going through a rough 2-for-34 stretch, the Jets have scored four times in the last nine opportunities (including a 3-for-5 stretch on Sunday), quieting some of the questions about the structural changes and personnel groupings.

The Jets’ top unit struck three times in this game, with Dubois, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele all finding the back of the net.

Dubois’ goal came on a nifty pass play in front of the net, Connor’s came on a beautiful one-timer, and Scheifele’s came off the rush, thanks to a zone entry with speed.

“Like I said when it was struggling, it was the least of my concerns,” said Wheeler. “I think we’re kind of in transition from what gave us a lot of success over the years and now trying to figure out a new way to have success. It’s going to look a little bit different and take some time to find our chemistry but it started coming. For me, I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying for years: We got, besides myself, a bunch of guys out there that can put the puck in the net and my job is to get it to them. As a guy that likes to move it around, it’s a pretty good luxury to have finding opening space for those guys and knowing they’re going to put it in the net.”

Prior to the game, Wheeler was honoured for appearing in his 1,000th NHL game and received a silver stick to commemorate the moment.

Among the players to send well wishes via video were longtime linemates Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd and a special cameo appearance from Dustin Byfuglien.

Byfuglien prefers to keep a low profile and hasn’t spoken to reporters since deciding to walk away from the game during the 2019-20 season, but he took the time to share some thoughts — and hearing his voice sent the crowd into a frenzy.

During the post-game session with reporters, Wheeler sat at the podium with Dubois, who was sporting a sleeveless Wheeler 1,000 shirt that was designed by Jets forward Jansen Harkins.

With his parents, Jim and Pat, and longtime agent Matt Keator in the crowd and with his wife Sam and three children with him on the ice, Wheeler did his best to take it all in.

“There’s a lot of buildup, a lot of anticipation,” said Wheeler. “You want to absorb it and enjoy it and soak in every moment, but at the same time it’s nice to move on,” he said. “It’s weird being front and centre when you play a team sport. It was a special day for my family.”

Wheeler isn’t quite sure where the silver stick is going to end up, but he’s a bit concerned about the silver mini-sticks that were given to his kids.

“It’s heavy as hell. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Probably in the closet right now. We’ll see,” said Wheeler. “I’m a little bit nervous… my kids have three of those things. A couple of lost teeth, probably. I haven’t had a chance to really look at it but my first impression is it’s got some girth to it.”

Finding a way to get a victory in a game against the Maple Leafs was what truly made the evening special for Wheeler.

“Losing in the NHL is a quiet place. The bus is quiet, the room’s quiet and no matter how big a celebration you had, it’s a disappointing night and now he gets to do the exact opposite,” said Maurice. “So there’s lots of cheers, he gets to tell a story and they’ll laugh and tell jokes all night, so it’s a great thing for everybody because it’s a night that you truly, win or lose, you’re going to carry that night, but winning makes it a whole lot better.

“It was a wired room before, right, and there was lots of joking, lots of laughing. They were pulling for him. They have a lot of respect for him. He’s been a great mentor to a lot of those players in that room and they want to be part of an enjoyable night, so a win makes that possible.”

On the ice, Wheeler chipped in two assists to give him five helpers during the past two games.

Although he was denied on a breakaway, Wheeler has been showing signs of getting going, first with his legs and then with his ability to distribute the puck and generate some dangerous scoring chances.

“It’s odd. Having yet to score a goal is certainly unchartered territory for me,” said Wheeler, who is up to 12 assists in 19 games. “You guys have watched me long enough. You know it’s coming. When one hits the net, everything’s going to change.

“Do I feel cursed on breakaways? I feel like I’m just hitting the goalie. I just feel like I’m trying to speed it up too much. When you haven’t scored a goal in so long, there’s a little bit of tension there. It’s just not as fluid as it would be otherwise. It’s going to come.”

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'GONG SHOW': Revenge-seeking Maple Leafs lose bitter battle to Jets – Toronto Sun

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‘A snowball effect’ after Rasmus Sandin had to be helped to the dressing room after a knee-on-knee hit from Neil Pionk

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WINNIPEG — Auston Matthews dismissed the late stages of Sunday’s 6-3 rowdy result to the Jets as “not really hockey … a bit of a gong show.”

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But a stumbling start was just as difficult for him and the Maple Leafs to watch, falling into a four-goal hole that made their attempt at back-to-back rallies near impossible.

While the loss was a missed chance to retrieve top spot in the division from idle Florida, leaving just one point from their Central Time Zone road trip, there were added damages. Defenceman Rasmus Sandin had to be helped to the dressing room after a knee-on-knee hit from defenceman Neil Pionk, a player who has a history of such incidents with the Leafs.

Coach Sheldon Keefe could provide no immediate update on Sandin before the team flew home, and Sandin’s Sunday night defence partner, Morgan Rielly, could only add he was in a lot of pain when they talked post-game. Sandin was a little off balance after shooting wide during a frantic 4-on-4 play around the Jets’ net and the replay showed Pionk’s attempt to impede him by sticking his leg out.

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“It looks to me like it’s a five-minute major,” Keefe said. “Knee-on-knee, a guy gets carried off. But I didn’t get much from the officials in terms of how they saw it. Obviously, they didn’t see it, if they did, they probably would’ve called it differently.”

Before that, the stripes let Matthews and Pierre-Luc Dubois wrestle before eventually sending both off, while post-Sandin, Jason Spezza took a run at Pionk. Wayne Simmonds came out of the box for a crosscheck and 10-minute misconduct to engage Jets’ giant Logan Stanley, who exited the game like a WWE character, exhorting the crowd at Canada Life Centre. Kyle Clifford and Brenden Dillon had the only true fight of the night, but eight roughing minors and four cross checks were called throughout.

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“There was a snowball effect, things spiralled out of control a bit,” said Matthews, who rarely takes penalties.

Captain John Tavares said Pionk lit the fuse.

“Obviously, we didn’t like the hit on Sandy. Any time you see a teammate go down like that and have to be carried off, we’ll stick up for one another.”

In the end, the thirst for revenge came back to bite them. Simmonds was in the box when Pionk and Kyle Connor set up Mark Scheifele for the insurance goal, the Jets’ third on the power play, after Matthews scored for the sixth straight game (a 5-on-3) and Ondrej Kase then cut Winnipeg’s lead to two.

It was the first loss for rookie goalie Joseph Woll in four starts relieving Jack Campbell and even he was shaken up, an accident when he came out of his crease to cover a puck from an on-rushing Jet with a glancing blow to the head. Woll finished the game but was not made available to the media.

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“The first two periods, so many odd-man rushes, we didn’t give him any help,” Matthews said. “That’s on us. And he still made some pretty amazing saves (on 41 shots). The way we let them fly through and have all these odd-man rushes, that’s not yhe way you want to play.”

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Matthews, Tavares, Rielly and William Nylander (injured Mitch Marner was kept out a second game, but due to return) were unable to cash their first power play, leaving it to Michael Bunting and the second unit to tie it after Dubois scored with Simmonds off. Ditto when the No. 1 unit had another opportunity late in the first. Then came wave after wave of Jets, goals by Andrew Copp, Evgeny Svechnikov, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. The guy everyone in the house wanted to score, captain Blake Wheeler, settled for two assists after a pre-game ceremony with his family on the ice.

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Keefe’s team arrived around 1 a.m. local time after the shootout loss in Minnesota, but he was reluctant to go down that avenue of excuse.

“We did have lack of attention to detail, lack of structure, lack of purpose in the things that have made us (16-5-4). It would be easy to go to the fatigue factor, but that’s not good enough. This is the reality of the schedule; you have to play back-to-back. So you just have to be that much more focused, that much more detailed.”

As they did the night before in Minnesota down three, the Leafs didn’t break. They made the most of a 5-on-3, after some initial stick squeezing, isolating Matthews for a high snap on Connor Hellebuyck, giving him 15 on the season. Kase struck next with 24 minutes still to play.

As well resting Campbell, Keefe put Clifford in for Joey Anderson and Timothy Liljegren for Travis Dermott, though he tried splitting the Swedes up, putting Liljegren with Jake Muzzin.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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5 Maple Leafs takeaways: Sandin carried off during ‘gong show’ in Winnipeg – Sportsnet.ca

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“A gong show.”

That is how Auston Matthews described the spiraling debacle — on the ice and on the trainers’ table – that brought the Toronto Maple Leafs’ eight-game point streak on the road to a screeching halt on Sunday.

Heading into this frigid weekend back-to-back in the northernmost outposts of the Central Division, Minnesota and Winnipeg, things had been going so swimmingly for the lads in Blue and White that the events of the past 48 hours served up a harsh reminder of some of the club’s weak spots.

Let’s dig into a few takeaways from the Leafs’ 6-3 loss to the Jets on the night Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler celebrated his 1,000th game.

Dubois ragdolls Matthews

Referee Brad Meier might be wise to steer clear of Leafs Twitter for a minute.

Here’s where the gong began to clang.

With the score 5-3 Jets in the third period, Meier dinged both Matthews and Pierre-Luc Dubois for coincidental minors for this exchange:

Matthews took the high road post-game, allowing only that he’d be leaving the rink with a sour taste in his mouth.

“One of the best players in the world is in a situation that should be a power-play there,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, grabbing his sniper’s back. “That’s how it should work, and it didn’t.

“On the very next shift, you get one of your guys carried off and there’s no call there. Should be a 4-on-3, a five-minute power-play in a two-goal game, and it’s not. I just felt at that point, we needed some response.”

Pionk takes Sandin down with controversial knee

Through 26 games, the full health of the Maple Leafs’ seven-man D corps was a lingering source of mild tension, as every night a deserving blueliner was getting scratched.

Well, if Rasmus Sandin’s injury is as serious as it appeared, GM Kyle Dubas will be thankful he didn’t pull the trigger on a trade.

Immediately after Sandin let a shot fly in the third period, Jets defenceman Neal Pionk clipped the 21-year-old with a knee-on-knee hit.

No penalty was called on the play.

Sandin left the ice with assistance from Wayne Simmonds and Ondrej Kase and did not return. There was no immediate update on his condition.

“It looks to me like it’s a five-minute major. It’s a knee-on-knee. A guy gets carried,” Keefe told reporters postgame. “Obviously, [the officials] didn’t see it. I think if they see it, they probably would’ve called it differently. The league, I’m sure, will have a look.”

The Pionk hit set the Leafs off, captain John Tavares admitted.

So, we saw mild-mannered Jason Spezza lunge at Pionk’s head, and Wayne Simmonds chuck knuckles with Logan Stanley as the thing winded down to its messy conclusion.

Power-plays on fire

To be clear: When it came to the actual hockey portion of the hockey game, the more deserving side earned the two points.

That’s thanks, in large part, to Winnipeg’s reawakened offence, which struck thrice on the man-advantage.

The Maple Leafs, too, looked dangerous on the PP, with Michael Bunting and Matthews both cashing in on clean shots.

Matthews extended his goal streak to six games and is the first player to have four goal streaks of at least five games in a single calendar year since Brett Hull.

Toronto has 16 power-play goals over its past 18 games, solidifying it as a weapon. Which is probably why Keefe believed a couple calls might’ve salvaged his club a point.

Missing Marner

Not unlike Tavares’s absence in the 2021 post-season, when you subtract Mitchell Marner from the Leafs lineup, the trickle effect exposes a lack of depth on the wings and on the PK.

Spezza filled in admirably in Minnesota and on the man-advantage, yet the rejigged first line took on water against the high-powered Jets attack.

With Pierre Engvall dropping to Spezza’s spot on the fourth line and Nick Ritchie moving to David Kampf’s line, that checking unit had a rough go dealing with Winnipeg’s speed.

The Leafs fed the home team’s transition game and exposed rookie goalie Joseph Woll to a rash of odd-man rushes. Plus, Marner’s instincts could’ve come in handy on the kill.

“[Marner] is not a guy you can just replace,” Matthews said. “But we have a lot of belief in our group. No matter who I play with, I have confidence in every single guy out there.”

Campbell or bust?

The 3-0 career start of Woll is a lovely story.

He’s a great, hard-working kid who has endeared himself to the big club.

But until he stared across at Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets, Woll had only faced offences in the weaker half of the league: Sabres, Islanders, Sharks. Non-playoff teams, all of them.

The likes of Wheeler, Dubois, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Nikolaj Ehlers pumping 41 shots in your direction?

That’s a whole other animal.

Sure, Woll could’ve used more help in his own zone. But he let in six — a reminder why Toronto spent millions on an NHL-proven backup over the summer.

So… how’s he doing?

Petr Mrazek lost 5-1 to Laval on Sunday starting for the Marlies in Game 1 of his AHL conditioning stint, stopping 22 of the 26 shots he faced. Coach Greg Moore liked what he saw.

“He looked good, didn’t look like he was hesitant. I thought he gave us a great effort and kept us in the game and a lot of mistakes and reasons for the pucks going in the net were on us,” Moore said.

After 53 days between starts, Mrazek said he felt great despite the loss.

“It’s good to get the action going and see the plays from the ice and how the game goes,” Mrazek said. “So, happy to be back and happy to see the action.”

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