TORONTO (AP) — Fred VanVleet had a face that only a country of hockey fans could love.
A bandage covering stitches under his right eye. Swelling near the side of his nose. Fresh dental work to repair a damaged tooth.
His day off in the NBA Finals consisted of a trip to the hospital and then the dentist, necessary stops after he was hit in the face and bloodied late in Game 4, when he had to leave the court with part of his tooth somewhere still on it.
The play hurt, but the Toronto Raptors have a team of guys who would take the pain.
“Yeah, we got some tough guys,” VanVleet said.
And they’ve overcome tough situations.
The Raptors were down and almost out in the Eastern Conference finals, in danger of falling into a hole from which no NBA team has ever recovered. But they pulled out Game 3 of that series against Milwaukee to kick off a powerful postseason run, and the only thing that might slow them down is stopping to collect the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Toronto can do that Monday by beating the Golden State Warriors at home in Game 5.
“It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be hard, but at the same time if we stay together and do everything we’re supposed to do, we have a chance. We have a good chance to put ourselves in a position to win,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said.
The first trip to the NBA Finals in franchise history appeared it might have to wait at least another year when the Raptors fell behind in the second overtime of Game 3 of the conference finals. Kawhi Leonard’s leg seemed to be hurting, Kyle Lowry had already fouled out and a victory would have given Milwaukee a 3-0 lead that has been insurmountable in the NBA.
The Raptors recovered to win and have barely looked back, winning seven of eight games against the Bucks and Warriors, the No. 1 seeds in each conference. Coach Nick Nurse had seen the possibilities from his team even before the comeback started, first with how the Raptors played so well in Game 1 of the conference finals after needing seven grueling games against Philadelphia in the previous round, and then by the way they shrugged off a blowout loss in Game 2.
“So that’s probably a moment of where I thought the team had something inside them to keep on going,” Nurse said.
What Toronto didn’t have at that point was a reliable offense beyond Leonard.
Veterans Lowry, Danny Green and Marc Gasol had struggled to make shots. The bench was contributing only sporadically.
That isn’t happening anymore. The Raptors made 17 3-pointers in their Game 3 victory at Golden State and have hit 10 or more in 10 straight games. VanVleet from the perimeter and Serge Ibaka on the interior have come off the bench to provide big boosts.
“Most teams, they’re expecting their bench to be better than ours,” Green said, “and when they come in outplaying their bench or giving us a huge plus against their starters, it’s due for a win when you’ve got guys performing like that off the bench.”
VanVleet will be back out there trying to keep doing it tonight — this time wearing a mouthpiece — after having to leave Game 4 when he was inadvertently hit in the face by Shaun Livingston while running back on defense. He had a CT scan to make sure there were no broken bones in his face and said he has no concussion symptoms.
He wouldn’t show off his dental work Sunday, but that made him just like his Raptors teammates who walked off the floor without hints of satisfaction on their faces after Game 4. They are too focused on keeping their run going, though they’ll be smiling plenty if they can get one more win.
“Now is the time to lock in even more,” VanVleet said. “We’ve been doing it, we’ve proven that we can do it. It’s not time to change anything that we’ve done, it’s just time to do it a little bit better, a little harder and a little smarter.”