Fred VanVleet needed the all-star break. Now the hardest part starts for the Raptors


CLEVELAND There was never really any doubt that Fred VanVleet belonged among the top players in the NBA, and as he hung out with his fellow all-stars here over the weekend it just affirmed what he knew.

It made his first trip to one of the league’s showcase events that much more fun.

“Just being in the locker room and being around the guys, just to be able to hear some of the stories, share some stories, I think that’s probably the best part,” the Raptors guard said of his inaugural all-star appearance. “Just to be part of the brotherhood of what this elite level is. Obviously the game was way more fun than anything else I’ve done since I’ve been here.”

VanVleet sure wasn’t taxed in Sunday night’s game, playing nine first-half minutes with six points, three assists and a couple of rebounds. The limited action was just fine with him. He’s been carrying a heavy load all season, and sat out one game just before the break with a sore knee.

“There were some conversations about it. I’m happy,” he said of the minutes. “I’m happy the way the night went. We won, I got out there and made a couple of shots, got some cardio in and I’m good.”

But now that his break is over — there were plans to enjoy some warm weather before the Raptors regroup in Charlotte for practice Wednesday night — VanVleet has to concentrate on the sprint to the end of the regular season.

The 32-25 Raptors, in a virtual tie with the Boston Celtics for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, have 25 games left — 12 at home, 17 against conference opponents — and begin the stretch with games in Charlotte (Friday), Atlanta ( Saturday) and Brooklyn (next Monday).

In the tightly bunched conference — where six games separate third place, with home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and 10th place for the final spot in the play-in portion of the post-season — the sprint to the finish is going to be intense.

“Building the team up the way we’ve built it up, I think there’s probably got to be a shift towards more playoff basketball as we get to the tail end of the season, and what that will look like,” VanVleet said. “We’ll get to some more packages. Coach (Nick Nurse) is pretty good with that, having a game plan for the season. You would like to start sharpening up as end of March, April comes.”

Radical change isn’t needed, just fine-tuning.

Raptor Fred VanVleet on his first NBA all-star experience: “Obviously the game was way more fun than anything else I've done since I've been here.”

“I think for the most part we are who we’re going to be,” VanVleet said.

“It’s more so attention to detail and just guys settling into their roles, and kind of getting into a better rhythm offensively and defensively where we don’t have to experience as much. We know what we’ve got; we’ve just got to put it together the best way we see fit.”

VanVleet said it was nice to get a couple of days to relax and soak in the all-star atmosphere. With daughter Sanaa and son Fred Jr. on his lap, the six-year NBA veteran looked the picture of contentment after his team from him, captained by LeBron James, won Sunday’s affair 163-160.

“Not many things get me excited, so to have my family here with me the whole way and able to enjoy the weekend as well, that was pretty special,” he said.

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