Aggressive, engaged Serge Ibaka maximizes Raptors’ ceiling

Washington Wizards guard Troy Brown Jr. (6) looks for a shot as Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) defends during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Way back in the early days of this soon-ending decade, when Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was helming the Iowa Energy in what was then named the NBA’s D-League, he returned from a west coast road trip to learn his four best players were being called up to the NBA.

“We were, like, 30-6,” Nurse remembers. “And then we lost four-fifths of the starting lineup.”

Iowa also lost five of its next six, and more than half its remaining games, before bowing out of the playoffs in the second round. Those are inconvenient facts, narratively-speaking. But it does illustrate that Nurse has faced circumstances like those he’s currently encountering, with three starters lost to injury in one night earlier this week, at least once before. And that no matter how unfortunate recent events may seem, it could always be worse. And it has always been worse.

What’s nice about Nurse’s current situation is that he isn’t looking down to the end of his bench summoning bitter, passed-by veterans and raw, developmental projects to fill the gaps in his starting lineup. He’s drawing from a pool of literal NBA champions. From a bench of tested, capable players who might just be starters on less competitive teams. Even one player who was an unquestioned starter on very good teams for eight-and-a-half seasons running, a span in which he started over 100 playoff games.

That would be Serge Ibaka. It seems like a long time ago that he was playing more than 30 minutes a night deep into the playoffs for the Oklahoma City Thunder. But it’s only been three years. And even more recently, he served as an every-game starter for both the Orlando Magic and the Raptors as a power forward before his recent and necessary transition to full-time centre.

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The diminishment of his role since has had more to do with who he’s been playing with in Toronto — first Jonas Valanciunas and then Marc Gasol — than how he’s played himself. It wasn’t easy at first. But, with time, Ibaka’s become a critical component off the bench. And whenever he’s been asked to reprise his starter’s role — when filling in for an injured Valanciunas or in a brief timeshare with a recently acquired Gasol — he’s frequently proven he’s still up to the task.

So maybe no one should have been surprised to see Ibaka go off Friday against the Washington Wizards, scoring 24 points on only 15 used possessions, while adding 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in a 122-118 Raptors triumph. It’s what the man’s capable of.

“That’s what makes our team so dangerous — Serge is a starter,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “He took that sacrifice to come off the bench for the betterment of our team. But he’s still a starting-calibre big in this league — and a very good one at that. We know that he’s very capable and we need him to keep continuing to play the way that he’s been playing the last few games.”

The Raptors just look different when they get an engaged, aggressive Ibaka like they did Friday night. The one that’s operating smoothly in pick-and-rolls with Kyle Lowry and VanVleet, popping up for jumpers or continuing on to the rim with force. The one who’s shooting his shot when left unguarded beyond the three-point line and banging around beneath both baskets for rebounds. The one who’s volleyballing weak opposition attempts like this into the shadow realm:

The problem is the Raptors haven’t always gotten that guy. If they had, Ibaka would be one of the better big men in the league. But he’s been prone to inconsistency and bouts of maddeningly confounding play, looking like one of the most impactful players on the floor one night and one of the most lost the next.

Toronto’s championship run last spring is a handy example. Ibaka missed his first nine three-pointers in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers before coming up with three crucial ones in Game 7. He was borderline unplayable early in the Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, before coming up with one of his most rousing performances of the season in Game 4, scoring 17 and grabbing 13 boards as the Raptors tied the series.

Then, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Ibaka suffered an absolute clunker, shooting 29 per cent from the field over 17 listless minutes. But later in the series, it was Ibaka who helped push the Raptors to a title, scoring 20 points in Game 4, and 15 in both Games 5 and 6, shooting 66 per cent over that span.

And, look, it’s an awfully high standard to expect him to be as good as he is, at his best, every time out. An unreasonable one, really. What the Raptors need Ibaka to do is raise the floor of his down nights and continue to find ways to influence games defensively and off the ball when he’s up against it offensively.

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Especially now that he’ll be in the starting lineup and regularly logging 30-plus minutes a night (he played 36 against Washington) in Gasol’s absence. The nature of Gasol’s injury — a hamstring strain — is such that it could take anywhere from mere weeks to more than a month to recover from. The Raptors haven’t announced its severity, but it’s safe to assume that if the matter was minor it would’ve been indicated by now.

As always, Gasol’s return to play will depend on how his soon-to-be 35-year-old legs respond to treatment. We’ll see what happens. But it’s safe to expect a steady run of Ibaka in a starter’s role over the next few weeks at least.

And Friday was an awfully good jumping-off point. Ibaka was active and engaged at both ends, playing physical defence, cleaning up the glass, and demonstrating the best chemistry he’s had with both Lowry and VanVleet since returning from a 10-game injury absence of his own earlier this month. He led his team with 16 box outs, 6 screen assists (off of which the Raptors scored 15 points), and 15 contested shots. By the third quarter, he was feeling so bold as to put up a heat check three early in a shot clock:

“Yeah, Serge looks great. He looks back to what he was before he got injured,” Nurse said. “He’s really confident in his jump shot. He’s playing big. They went small for a while and he was playing big, getting some rebounds and offensive rebounds, etcetera. And I thought he was doing a nice job late defensively of getting up and challenging off the screens when those guys were flying off. So, yeah, he was really good tonight. Really good.”

Of course, doing all this against Ian Mahinmi and the Wizards is one thing. Doing it Sunday against Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks, and then a couple days later against Domantas Sabonis and the Indiana Pacers, will be another. Then there’s a home-and-home with the exceptionally-athletic, defensively-sound Boston Celtics beginning Christmas Day.

And the games will just keep coming from there. That’s where Ibaka’s consistency will truly be tested. Will he maintain it and get the Raptors through this period without arguably their second-most impactful player in Gasol? Or will he suffer bad lapses, forcing Nurse to make a tough decision as to whether to stick with Ibaka on an off night or look elsewhere?

That could prove challenging. While Ibaka is a minor luxury as a back-up centre, its behind him that things really thin out. Chris Boucher is next up, and he’s had some terrific moments this season, particularly when he was thrust into a bigger role during Ibaka’s injury absence in November. But Boucher can only make up for so much of his lack of bulk with sheer energy and activity. Beyond him, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or OG Anunoby, neither of them true centres, would have to slide into an unnatural five spot as part of smaller lineups.

Which is why it’s imperative that Ibaka continues to turn in performances like Friday’s. Good teams like the Raptors can weather bad storms like they’re currently sailing through. But the margin for error is awfully thin.

“I think Serge’s energy is getting back. I think the rhythm is getting back. I think he’s feeling good about himself,” Lowry said. “We just need him to continue to play at that level.”

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