TORONTO — One minute into the second quarter of the most intense, meaningful, and extraordinary game the Toronto Raptors have ever played, Danny Green found Serge Ibaka open on the perimeter. To that point, the Raptors were 0-for-9 from three, and 5-for-25 from anywhere, as they began that intense, meaningful, extraordinary game shooting at a 20 per cent clip. In 13 minutes of basketball, the Raptors had yet to hit a jump shot. It’s not what you want.
Ibaka gathered the pass and hesitated for a moment. There was still 14 seconds on the shot clock. There was time to make a play. But Ibaka had space, and he’d spent the prior 48 hours obsessing over the shots he’d missed to that point in his team’s Eastern Conference semifinal with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was 0-for-9 in the series; 3-for-17 in the playoffs.
If there was one thing he wanted to do in Game 7, one way he wanted to impact that intense, meaningful, extraordinary game, it was with his shot.
“Oh man, I wanted it so bad. I wanted it so much,” Ibaka said after the Raptors won, insanely, 92-90. “After Game 6, when we lost, I came back and the only thing on my mind was thinking about, ‘I have to make my shots, I have to make those open shots for us to be successful.’ I already know Kawhi’s going be Kawhi. But, my jumper. I have to make those shots.
“The last two days after that Game 6, I just kept talking to myself, I kept talking to my friends, ‘I have to make those shots. I have to.’ And thank God, tonight, I was able to make those open shots.”
That three from Ibaka was like a safety valve on a pressure cooker. It let just enough steam out. As the Raptors were missing shot after shot, continuing a maddening, series-long trend of spotty shooting on open looks, it was beginning to look like it was finally catching up to them. Sunday night was shaping up to be the one when they learned that’s no way to live.
But it was Ibaka of all people who finally gave them a three — finally gave them a jumper, incredibly — and finally gave them another eight minutes later, when Lowry found him in nearly the same spot. Ibaka didn’t hesitate that time, stepping confidently into his shot and cutting a four-point deficit to one with only his team’s second made three-pointer of the night.
“There was a stretch there when he was maybe the second most confident guy out there behind Kawhi,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “It’d get kicked out to him and he was just pulling it. Or, he was flying inside, and getting a dump off, and he was finding a way to get it in.”
It was the same thing on the glass, where Ibaka came down with a game-high four offensive rebounds, which was only one fewer than the Sixers had as a team. That was a massive swing stat, as Philadelphia came into Game 7 with a 276-210 rebounding advantage in the series, including a 63-42 edge on the offensive glass. Philadelphia had come down with 16 offensive rebounds in Game 6, the fifth time in the first six games that they’d fought their way to at least nine.
The Raptors still got out-rebounded in Game 7, but only by three. And holding the Sixers to just five offensively was a major victory, and a huge factor in an incredibly tight game. Much of that was thanks to Ibaka.
“I just tried to give everything — everything, man,” Ibaka said. “I knew tonight’s game was, ‘are you in or are you out?’ If you lost tonight, you go home. There’s no second chance or next opportunity. I really tried to do my best I can to be aggressive and active on the glass.
“It definitely was the key, man. You know, like everybody says, defence wins championships. I think tonight we did a great job on the defensive end. Even when they scored some baskets, we made sure they had to work for every basket.”
It was the moments he picked, too. With the Raptors nursing a three-point lead early in the fourth, Ibaka grabbed a defensive board over Jimmy Butler, who had inside position but couldn’t do anything with it. Two minutes later, he hit a pull-up three-pointer in front of the Raptors bench with Ben Simmons flashing a hand in his face, pushing Toronto’s lead to five.
“He kind of looked like me out there in the corner,” Green said. “A little pump fake, swing through and no-dribble shot. I’ve never seen him do that one before.”
With the Raptors down one midway through the quarter, he extended a possession off a Raptors miss that ultimately resulted in a lead-changing Leonard three. And with less than a minute left, he muscled Joel Embiid out of the way under the Sixers glass and pulled down the rebound of the game, keeping a Raptors possession alive at a decisive moment.
“He was unbelievable,” said Pascal Siakam. “Just bringing us energy and being a force for us on the rebounding side of the ball. He was amazing.”
One of the most impactful coaching adjustments made in this series came in Toronto’s Game 4 victory, when Nurse chose to give Ibaka and Marc Gasol extended floor time together for the first time this postseason. It was partly out of necessity, with Siakam picking up an injury in Game 3 and being limited for Game 4. But it also had immense tactical benefits, as the two Raptors bigs provided a useful counter to Philadelphia’s length, which had been a problem throughout the first three games.
In the end, the Raptors played to a 5.9 net rating with Ibaka and Gasol on the floor together during the series, winning those minutes by 17 points.
“I think as the series kept going, me and Marc were starting to get better and better. Because, of course, we didn’t play together all year,” Ibaka said. “We just figured it out. We won that first game when we played together, and then from there, we kept watching film every time after games. We’d come back and try to figure out how we can play together on both ends of the floor and try to find space. You know, ‘Who’s guarding Marc?’ If they put Embiid on Marc, I have to be down. If they put Embiid on me, Marc had to be down. Just trying to find better and better balance for our team’s offence.”
And, ultimately, that was the look Nurse went to in the fourth quarter Sunday when it was all on the line. It just worked so well. And Ibaka, who’s been exasperatingly inconsistent over his Raptors playoffs career, was bringing it all over the floor. He finished a game-high plus-22 with 17 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. He was nothing shy of critical.
That’s why Ibaka was out there in the dying moments, playing his 12th minute of the fourth quarter, his 17th of the second half, as Leonard’s unforgettable shot rainbowed up high above the court, bouncing one, two, three, four times with a game, a series, a franchise’s history hanging in the balance. That’s why Ibaka had the best view in the arena, right beneath the net, hunting for a rebound like he was all night.
“I don’t know if you saw the video,” Ibaka said afterwards, and, yes, Serge, we saw the video. “I was down there, trying to be ready to go for an offensive rebound. But every time the ball kept bouncing, I kept trying to jump. It was just amazing, man. Amazing.”