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Thanks to Kawhi Leonard, no moment will ever be too big for Fred VanVleet and the Raptors

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) looks at the bench during the first half of a game Nov. 10 against the Lakers at Staples Center.
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) looks at the bench during the first half of a game Nov. 10 against the Lakers at Staples Center.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

A championship took Fred VanVleet to clear blue Caribbean beaches. He was there with his family — his girl, his daughter, his newborn son. He had money in the bank, halfway into a two-year, $18-million contract.

He felt accomplished, proud of the career he had built for himself. He felt at peace, aware that he had gone from an undrafted rookie from Rockford, Ill. to a Canadian hero after an incredible nine-game run to close the postseason. It was an amazing summer.

And, like so many other things with the Raptors, it had so much to do with Kawhi Leonard, one hell of a bounce and the ability to make the most out of an opportunity.

With the Raptors pushed to the edge of playoff extinction last year, Leonard glided to a pocket of open space in front of the Toronto bench. In the final seconds of Game 7 against Philadelphia in the second round, Leonard’s game-winner bounced and bounced on the rim before rolling in.

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VanVleet had the best view a player would never want. He saw the play from the bench.

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard is surrounded by his teammates after hitting a buzzer beater to win Game 7 of a playoff series against the 76ers on May 12.
Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard is surrounded by his teammates after hitting a buzzer beater to win Game 7 of a playoff series against the 76ers on May 12.
(Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

Had that shot not gone in, VanVleet’s summer is totally different. If the Raptors’ season ends that night, VanVleet enters free agency shooting just 27.6 percent in the playoffs averaging just 4.2 points per game.

But it didn’t end that night. The shot went in.

“And I got another chance,” he said.

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VanVleet rebounded from the awful start in the playoffs, catching fire midway through the Conference Finals — a streak that coincided with the birth of his son. He finished the playoffs by making 30 three-pointers in Toronto’s last nine games.

If he doesn’t get that chance, does he head into next summer with a market value of $15 million or so a season in free agency? Does he play with the same kind of self-assurance if he goes home and thinks about all his misses over the summer?

“He certainly was struggling, right? And we certainly needed him out there,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “I give him a ton of credit.”

The Leonard-less Raptors have earned a lot of credit for how they’ve looked this season. They came to Los Angeles as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but serious injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka could’ve deflated that momentum.

Instead, the Raptors out-worked the Lakers and fought the Clippers from tip to buzzer, eventually losing 98-88.

Obviously, Leonard’s decision to leave the Raptors for the Clippers this summer created a massive hole on the Raptors’ roster. But VanVleet and, to a more prolific extent, Pascal Siakam, have happily stepped in and stepped up.

Siakam, last year’s Most Improved Player, might actually be the early favorite to win it again. He’s replaced Leonard as the Raptors’ top offensive player, his lightning quick spin move now in the same conversation as James Harden’s step-back jumper, Stephen Curry’s pull-up and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Euro step.

Prior to facing the Clippers, Siakam’s 27.4 points per game were seventh best in the NBA.

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He struggled in Monday’s Leonard reunion, but Sunday against the Lakers, he went at Kyle Kuzma like it was a free basket every time. And after beating the Lakers, Siakam smiled talking about all the extra shots that are available to be taken now that Leonard is Los Angeles.

Like Siakam, VanVleet’s taken a big step to fill some of the void left by Leonard’s departure — a void that only got bigger with Lowry’s thumb injury last Friday.

After beginning the season starting next to the Toronto point guard, VanVleet’s slid over into the position, and in two games in L.A. he played all but 12 minutes, attacking defenses and bulldogging ball-handlers for each of the 84 minutes he was on the floor.

And after VanVleet proved that he could be a difference maker on the NBA’s biggest stage, nothing Nurse can ask of him now should be overwhelming.

“It certainly helped,” Nurse said.

Because Leonard’s shot last season bounced into the basket, VanVleet got another chance. Because Leonard left for Los Angeles, Siakam got a chance to star. And because the Raptors are who they are — they’ll always have a chance to win.

“It’s really something,” Nurse said.

For Toronto, it’s actually everything.


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