Fred VanVleet will begrudgingly use a mouthguard the next time he steps on the floor in the NBA Finals.
For how long? The scrappy Raptors guard isn’t making any promises.
Sporting a puffy right cheek dotted by the seven stitches and a freshly-repaired front tooth stemming from the nasty elbow he received in Toronto’s victory in Game 4 of the title series, VanVleet is set to add some extra protection with his team looking to close things out at home against the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.
“I’m a gambler. I gambled and sometimes it comes back to bite you in the butt,” VanVleet said at a podium set up along one of the baselines at Scotiabank Arena following Sunday’s practice. “All kids out there, wear mouthpieces. It was a weird play and I took an unfortunate shot. Now I will be wearing a mouthpiece for as long as I can manage it.
“I’ll probably throw it (away) at some point, but I’m going to try.”
VanVleet was felled by an accidental elbow from Golden State’s Shaun Livingston in the fourth quarter of the Raptors’ 105-92 victory Friday, leaving him bloodied and flat on his back.
He went to the hospital to make sure there were no broken bones in his face after the Raptors landed in Toronto on Saturday before going to the dentist to get his tooth fixed.
“I’m not going to smile for you and show you,” joked VanVleet, who tested out his new mouthguard Sunday. “But back to normal.”
He said there’s also no lingering effects from the scary sequence, save for a bit of blurred vision and his eye watering from time to time.
“No symptoms, no concussion,” VanVleet said. “We have great doctors … they’re very annoying. They make sure we’re in the right state of mind before we go out there.”
He added the repaired portion of his tooth is brand new, with the original somewhere back on the West Coast.
“That tooth is long gone,” VanVleet said. “I saw something on TV that looked like my tooth.
“I don’t know if it was … could have used that.”
Asked if the sequence was an example of the what the Raptors are about in terms of grit and determination, VanVleet took a hard pass.
“I’m not trying to be a martyr out here. They can give my tooth back,” said the native of Rockford, Ill. “You’re not going to get knocked around like that if you don’t stick your nose in there sometimes. It was an unfortunate play, but it happens. It’s basketball.
“If you haven’t got your eye cut up or got hit in the mouth a couple times playing basketball then you might be playing it the wrong way.”
The 25-year-old has averaged 12.8 points, three assists and 1.5 steals off the bench. He also had a playoff career-high 21 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final — quite something for an undrafted Wichita State Shockers product that was in a battle just to make the Raptors at training camp in 2016.
“Just to stay on track and trust yourself and don’t doubt anything that you’ve been doing,” VanVleet said of the advice he’d give his younger self trying to catch on. “Just understand whatever you feel in your gut and your heart is right. Follow that and you’ll always be rewarded.
“That’s what I did from that point on, bet on myself and trust that I really felt what I was doing and really believed in it.”
After taking Games 3 and 4 on the road, VanVleet and the Raptors are one win away from the franchise’s first championship, and Toronto’s first title in North America’s four major sports since the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.
But they know closing out the two-time defending champions, a team that’s in the finals for a fifth straight June, will be no easy feat.
“Any time you’re trying to beat any team four times it’s tough,” VanVleet said. “I don’t care what league, what arena, what stage — especially on the highest stage against the team that’s been the best team the last few years — is no small feat. We’ve got our work cut out for us.
“We all accept the challenge and can hopefully go out there and take care of business.”