As Kyle Lowry dribbled the ball up court after a Game 5-sealing rebound, Fred VanVleet got knocked to the Fiserv Forum court, and for a few moments the smallest player on the court didn’t move.
Maybe he was overcome with emotion? His team was wrapping up a 105-99 road win to take a 3-2 lead and put the Raptors one win away from Toronto’s first NBA Finals appearance. He had played a monster role, scoring 21 points — all on three-pointers — after struggling for most of the postseason.
But no, that wasn’t it.
Maybe, VanVleet was hurt? The Bucks are bigger than the Raptors at nearly every position, and Thursday’s game was especially physical.
But no, that wasn’t it, either.
Maybe, well probably, VanVleet hit the ground, shut his eyes and grabbed a few winks. After traveling back and forth between Toronto, Rockford, Ill., and Milwaukee over the last week trying to get home for the birth of his second child, VanVleet would take any rest where he could get it.
“Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose,” VanVleet said.
The unorthodox formula has worked for the Raptors’ reserve guard.
Prior to Fred Jr.’s birth, he had made only eight of 41 three-point shots, a load of misses for a shooter who has made the deep ball at nearly 40% in his career.
In the two games since, he’s made 10 of 12 from three-point range, getting Toronto in prime position to end this series Saturday on its home court.
“You guys know it’s been a rough playoff stretch shooting the ball for me. Everything else has been fine in my opinion, but just shooting the ball has been a little rough,” he said.
“I still found time to get quick workouts in here and there. …So keep just trusting the work and trusting your craft and knowing that at some point they’re going to drop. A lot of times, how it works, they all come at once. And I think that’s what you’ve seen, so just bottle it up and put some games together.”
Since falling behind 2-0 in this series, the Raptors have now strung three games together, relying on a smothering half-court defense and the relentless greatness of Kawhi Leonard, who delivered a 35-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound game Thursday all while keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo relatively quiet.
“The game he played tonight — 35, nine and seven — was a pretty good game. It’s a pretty good game on the big stage and on the road,” Lowry purposefully understated. “Superstar. Superstar.”
Leonard, who had been fighting leg injuries in each of the last two Toronto wins, looked healthier Thursday, particularly late. He scored 22 of his points in the second half, and in the fourth he scored 15 — more than any two Bucks players in the last quarter combined.
“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard, a Finals MVP with the Spurs, said. “I enjoy it, and this was our workout for the summer. You’ve just got to go out and shoot the ball, I guess. That’s my mindset.”
It’s a steadiness that helped the Raptors’ dearly in a pivotal Game 5. After losing two straight, just their second losing streak of the entire season, the Bucks jumped out fast thanks to the wave of emotion that rolled through their home crowd.
Within five minutes, the Bucks led by 14. After Toronto came back, Milwaukee threw another punch, pushing the lead to 12 in the third quarter. But the Raptors clawed their way back into contention before VanVleet shot them back over the top.
“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him, though. Great game.”
And now, even if just for a night, he can get some rest.