TORONTO — Serge Ibaka calls them the “oh s— moments,” and he’s seen enough playoff basketball to know you’ve got to get past them quickly.
“There’s no time for that oh s— moment — it’s win now or go home,” Ibaka said after his Toronto Raptors dropped their first-round opener to the Milwaukee Bucks, 97-83. “It’s tough, playoff basketball. Every team is a good team, man. If a team is here, that means they’re good. So, you have to expect that it’s going to be harder. You have to keep believing in each other, believing in yourself, and working hard.”
No one can say Ibaka didn’t come through on that credo in Saturday’s Raptors defeat, as he was easily their best player on the floor after DeMar DeRozan. With Kyle Lowry having one of his worst nights of the year, Ibaka settled in as the Raptors’ secondary scorer, pouring in 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting. He also led the team with 14 rebounds and blocked three shots, while defending everyone from guard Tony Snell to centre Greg Monroe.
Another thing he did was roll his left ankle while stepping on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in the third quarter. Ibaka lay on the floor for a minute after the awkward landing, before popping up and hobbling to the bench. He didn’t miss a single play, but he did have the ankle wrapped in thick black tape after the game, a measure the team called a precaution.
Ibaka looked fine playing out the rest of the game, save for one slip in the fourth. And, short of perhaps amputation, you can bet the 27-year-old will be in the lineup for Tuesday’s Game 2 regardless of how bad the injury really is.
“It’s nothing too serious,” Ibaka said. “Just a twisted ankle. We’ve got two days before our next game. So, I’ll be ready.”
That’s good news for the Raptors, who traded for the pending free agent Ibaka specifically for this very playoff push. He’s here to up their defensive intensity, provide an alternative option at the offensive end, and provide a salty, combative presence the team lacked for much of the regular season.
He was also brought in for his work rate, which is why it wasn’t a surprise to see Ibaka still battling for offensive rebounds and hustling back on defence late into the game Saturday when most of the Raptors had already accepted their fate. He was trying to set an example.
“I just try to play tough and smart,” Ibaka said. “Just do my job. Do whatever it takes. Do whatever my coaches and teammates need for me to do. I focus on that. And then, all the guys, they can follow you.”
Saturday was Ibaka’s 15th career playoff double-double, which is a stat that should remind you of something: this is a very experienced post-season player. Ibaka’s been on several deep playoff runs with Oklahoma City, including four trips to the Western Conference finals and one appearance in the NBA Finals in 2012, when the Thunder lost to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in five games.
Saturday was his 90th playoff game, and if he has it his way, he’ll cross into triple digits before the summer. And if he also has it his way, he’ll bring even more effort in Game 2 than he did on Saturday.
“I can still do better. We can all do better,” Ibaka said. “I’m going to go watch tape of tonight’s game and see what I can do better.”
Guarding Snell to begin the game, Ibaka was one of the few Raptors who came to play in an unfocused first quarter, leading Toronto with 10 points and three rebounds. His first points were emphatic as he finished a screen-and-roll with Lowry by slipping untouched to the rim for a dunk.
His finest moment of the first came about halfway through the frame, when he took a pass at the top of the arc from DeRozan, pump faked Thon Maker out of his shoes, and charged into the paint where he finished with a slam at the rim to briefly tie the game.
In the second quarter, Ibaka was relied on less for his offence and more for his defence, asked to guard multiple Bucks including centres Monroe and Spencer Hawes. At one point, Ibaka stood tall at the rim and swatted away a Monroe runner before sprinting up the floor where he grabbed successive offensive rebounds.
That hustle paid off again shortly before halftime when Ibaka snuck behind the Milwaukee defence for an easy outlet bucket. And in the final minute of the half he showed off his deft touch in the paint, hitting a sneaky hook shot from close range.
“I thought Serge brought it,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “I thought that he had some good looks.”
If there’s one thing Casey would like to see Ibaka pick up it’s his spacing, particularly on screen-and-rolls. It’s a tough mission for Ibaka, who Casey asks to guard multiple defenders throughout a night and switch between playing forward and centre depending on game flow.
“He’s got to make sure he’s in the right space as far as rolling to the basket or popping. When he’s at the five, he’s probably going to be the roller,” Casey said. “But those things will work themselves out. We’ll get that fixed.”
And if they do, Ibaka could be a crucial weapon for the Raptors over the rest of this series. The Bucks never truly had an answer for him Saturday, and if he had stuck a couple three-pointers he normally makes, his stat line would have looked even better.
Which is all to say: on a night when his teammates seemed to succumb to some of the “oh s--- moments” he warned against, Ibaka’s strong work stuck out. Even if he doesn’t agree.
“No, I’m not happy with how I played. It doesn’t matter. We didn’t win,” Ibaka said. “I’d prefer I have a, I don’t know, a bad game. In the playoffs, the W is more important than the stats. It’s the playoffs. It’s win here or go home.”