Fred VanVleet chewed awkwardly on a new mouth guard as he took a few shots Sunday during a light off day for the Toronto Raptors before Game 5 of the NBA Finals. His right eye was purple and swollen, and the seven stitches on his upper cheek were hidden beneath bandages and tape.
Less than 36 hours earlier, the Raps reserve guard was lying on the Oracle Arena floor in Oakland, bleeding profusely from below his eye late in Game 4, as broken bits of his teeth swam around in his mouth. An inadvertent flying elbow from Golden State’s Shaun Livingston had bashed him flush in the face and knocked him to the ground.
“No symptoms, no concussion, so you guys can leave that alone,” VanVleet told reporters on Sunday, confirming that he has passed the NBA’s concussion protocol. “We have great doctors and great staff and the NBA is great and they follow a protocol. They’re very annoying and they make sure that we’re in our right state of mind before we go out.”
VanVleet will be ready to go when the Raptors try to close out the Warriors on Monday and seize Toronto’s first NBA title. It’s a relief for the Raps, who are using him as a key defender on sharp-shooting Warriors star Steph Curry. Living up to his Steady Freddy nickname in this series, he’s also contributing an average of 12.8 points on 48.6-per-cent shooting, along with three assists in a hefty 33 minutes a night.
On Saturday, VanVleet made two important stops right after he got off the Raptors plane back to Toronto. He went to the hospital for a CT scan, which ruled out any broken facial bones. Then, he went to the dentist to get his front teeth fixed.
In Game 5, like it or not, VanVleet will protect his fresh dental work with a mouth guard.
“I hate wearing mouthpieces,” VanVleet said. “I will be wearing a mouthpiece for as long as I can manage it. I’ll probably throw it away at some point during the game, but I’m gonna try.”
He said his vision is a little blurry and his eyes are watering periodically. It’s second eye injury of these playoffs. He was cut under the left eye in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against Milwaukee.
“But it’s not too bad. I’ve actually had worse, so I’m doing all right,” the 25-year-old said on Sunday. “I’m more upset about the teeth than the eye.”
He said he didn’t retrieve the piece of his broken top tooth that landed on the hardwood floor in Friday’s game, despite the fact cameras had filmed it during the broadcast. He got a new front tooth and the dentist also fixed his bottom row, which was chipped in the collision.
“I’m not gonna smile for you or show you, but I’m back to normal,” VanVleet said, opening his mouth only slightly. “You know I’ve been fighting to get my teeth fixed for about three, four years now. I don’t have the straightest or whitest teeth, but I like ‘em. They’re healthy and they work for me, so I’m not trying to get them fixed anytime soon.”
VanVleet, an undrafted free agent now in his third year as a Raptor, knows the injury came as a result of some risky play on his part. Livingston and Serge Ibaka were going for the rebound and VanVleet was trying to help, positioning himself between the ball and Andre Iguodala. The six-foot point guard stuck his nose in there; that’s just his style.
“I’m a gambler, and I gambled and sometimes it comes back to bite you,” he said. “It was a fast break. I was trying to get inside position for a rebound, Serge [Ibaka] made a great play on the ball, and Shaun came down. It is what it is. We won the game. It would’ve hurt a lot more if we lost.”
VanVleet had his usual easy demeanour and sense of humour throughout the conversation, despite a rough couple of days. In a moment that sounded a little like Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, the Raps guard offered up a bit of advice.
“All kids out there you probably should wear mouthpieces.”