•Raptors decided not to rush Ibaka into action
•Ibaka isn’t stepping into a well-oiled machine
•Raptors are under pressure as they slide down the standings
TORONTO — He’s not a saviour. He’s an earthly being, even if he seems heaven-sent. Cut him and he bleeds; give him 24 hours’ notice to upend his life, tell his daughter that Daddy won’t be coming home for a while and spend a day being poked, prodded, scanned and examined, and he might not be ready to come out and play elite NBA basketball.
That was the case for Serge Ibaka on Wednesday night. While Raptors fans may have bid up ticket prices on the secondary market hoping to see the newest Raptor make his debut against the visiting Charlotte Hornets, by the time Ibaka got through his physical late Wednesday afternoon and had only a 30-minute pre-game walkthrough to familiarize himself with his new job, the decision was made to push his debut back.
But the way his new team is playing, they may need something more than some above-average contributions from the power forward spot, which is why they traded Terrence Ross and a first-round pick to get him.
The Raptors have run the full range of adjectives over the past six weeks or so. They’ve gone from short-handed to being in a lull, to a slump and more recently a funk.
The past week? More often than not they have simply sucked. No fight, no passion. Lots of begging referees to solve their problems. If they don’t fix that, Ibaka won’t help them, not one little bit. The Raptors led the Hornets by 14 just two minutes into the second quarter and decided it was time to cruise into the all-star break. By the end of the third quarter – a space of 22 minutes – the Raptors were trailing by 17, a 31-point swing.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s solution was to play the entire fourth quarter with a struggling DeMar DeRozan (5-of-19, three turnovers, no free-throws, 10 points) glued to the bench. In his place was a lineup featuring Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll, anchored by Kyle Lowry. His faith was rewarded as Toronto outscored Charlotte 32-10 to head into the all-star break with just its fifth win in its past 16 games.
“I was searching,” said Casey. “We had some guys struggling just to get something done, just to make a play.”
So yes, the Raptors need Ibaka, but the decision was made before the game to sit him out rather than rush him into action after a chaotic day and a half.
“Oh yes, little crazy, little crazy, “ Ibaka, acquired from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday afternoon, said when asked about what the previous 24 hours have been like. “Telling my daughter I'm leaving, because she had to stay in Orlando for school. . . it's been a little crazy but one thing I know is things happen for a reason. And I'm here for a reason, so like I said, I'm ready to go.”
He’s going to have to wait, as will Raptors fans.
“We're wanting to make sure he gets acclimated and not put too much pressure on him,” said Casey. “…As much as we'd love to have him out there, he's a human being going through emotions. Being traded's not easy. We'll see plenty of him come the 24th.”
Yes, the 24th, which marks the Raptors' home date against the Boston Celtics, the last game in the season series between the two clubs that are developing a rivalry of sorts and could very well end up meeting in the playoffs.
But just as important are the two full practice days the Raptors will have with their new and full lineup after the all-star break, which begins Thursday for those not named Lowry and DeRozan, who are headed to New Orleans to take part.
As much excitement as there is about adding a player of Ibaka’s pedigree – he’s been a first-team all-defensive player three times, led the NBA in blocks four times and has turned himself into a 39 per cent three-point shooter – reality was beginning to set in even as the buzz around the move faded.
The Congo native isn’t joining a well-oiled machine, just trying to fit in. That would be nice. Instead the 33-24 Raptors are teetering on the edge of a top-four seed in the East after coasting along in second for all of last year and the first half of this one.
The outing against Charlotte was typical. You’d like to cut them some slack because they were on the second night of a back-to-back and short-handed and all of that noise, but they were brutal in Chicago on Tuesday, too.
“Not getting stops, missing shots and it takes down to the defensive end and you relax a little and your defensive mojo is gone … you put your head down and you're dejected,” said Casey.
On paper Ibaka, solves a lot of issues, but only if the Raptors' issues aren’t more fundamental than we’ve been led to believe. And even then Toronto will have just 25 games to integrate him.
“It’s not like it’s gonna be a magic wand,” said Casey. “We’ve still got some working to do to get back and get our rhythm back and get our defence somewhat righted and get our offensive rhythm and combinations together. So it’s not gonna be just like one game, boom, we’re back just because Serge walks in the door. It’s a huge help, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a lone saviour. It’s everybody, collectively, pulling together.”
Not that there isn’t plenty of room for optimism. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford was relieved to not have to face Ibaka and laid out why he should be such an important addition. Not only because the Raptors have long had a gap at power forward, but because power forward has almost become the fulcrum of modern NBA defences.
“I think at his position, that is the key spot to me. Because he has size and physicality but he can move his feet,” said Clifford. “So he can be in switching [situations] where he can switch onto smaller, quicker guys and he’s always done that. Plus he can play against bigger, stronger guys. In this league right now he could play a lot of three men, some two guards and he could guard a lot of the centres.
“So the four spot to me is the key spot defensively and he is one of the guys you would say if you were building a team defensively he’d be the type of guy you would want to find.”
If not playing the saviour role, Ibaka sounds like he’s up to the challenge of helping the Raptors right their ship.
“It's always pressure in sport,” said Ibaka, who wore a toque for his first Raptors press conference and spoke in French-accented English. “Even where I come from, Orlando was pressure … and it's going to be always pressure, but I think those pressures make us better. Without pressure, I'm not going to wake up every day to go work, or do extra shots, or lifting. I do those kinds of things, because I know I have pressure on my back. So that's going to make us better.”
The Raptors' slide has put them under pressure. It hastened their decision to make such a significant trade. It puts pressure on them to earn a favourable seed and a favourable matchup in the playoffs.
The hope is that Ibaka can relieve some of that burden. But the way things have been going lately, it’s not looking like a one-man job.