‘Jumbo lineup’ gives Raptors potential secret weapon for playoffs

Raptors centre Serge Ibaka explains why the message he will wear on his jersey will be "Respect Us," and why it's so important to him to support the youth in his homeland Congo, and for them to get the respect they deserve.

TORONTO – You may not meet a more particular man in all of the NBA when it comes to practice routine than Serge Ibaka.

The Toronto Raptors big man likes to get his work in very early and is often spotted as the last guy in the gym getting extra shots up.

A commendable trait, for sure, but given the tight time constraints of the socially-distanced world of life inside the NBA’s Walt Disney World bubble, Ibaka’s routine has been thrown out of whack to the point where he is counting the minutes now to ensure he gets as close to the level of work as he’s used to.

“We get a three-hour block of time to practice, and we try to make it as similar to being at home as we can, which means normally guys will come in in the morning, and there’s weights and stretching and a shooting segment before actual practice begins,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said on a conference call Wednesday. “…As soon as practice is over every day, Serge comes right to me and gets the watch out and says ‘how much time do we have exactly?’”

As Nurse recalled, because of a speaker that addressed the team at the beginning of practice, Ibaka only had 32 minutes at the end of the session to get in any additional work Wednesday. Thankfully, if Ibaka does want more time there are shooting allotments that teams can book for players in the evening.

“I have to do the best I can to adjust, do my things, and then try to adapt with the situation,” Ibaka said. “So far I am getting used to it.”

The faster Ibaka can conform to his new routine the better it will be for the Raptors as a whole.

Enjoying a career year before the season suspended with averages of 16 points and 8.3 rebounds on 51.8 per cent shooting from the field and 39.8 per cent from three-point range, Ibaka boasts the second-best PER of the Raptors’ regular players and has been an absolute bedrock for the club in the lengthy absence of usual starting centre Marc Gasol.

Ibaka has been so good for the Raptors this season that even with the return of a healthy – and much leaner – Gasol in this reset, Nurse is contemplating playing both Ibaka and Gasol at the same time as part of what he affectionately calls his “jumbo lineup.”

“I think you’ll see Marc and Serge together quite a bit,” said Nurse. “I think that there’s more familiarity there. Again, I just think with Serge’s increased skill set he’s been able to play a little bit more four, and Marc’s so smart defensively.”

This is an interesting shift in philosophy for Nurse, who notably split up Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas at centre last season before the Raptors traded the latter to acquire Gasol. By splitting up his two most notable big men and not really allowing them to play many minutes together, however, it’s played to the benefit of Ibaka, who seemed to struggle playing alongside another traditional big when he was first acquired by Toronto at the trade deadline in 2017.

Still, it’s not like Nurse is just suddenly throwing this idea at the wall of playing his two best bigs together. The pair suited up on the Spanish national team in the past and, in Ibaka’s case, the power forward spot was his natural position for his entire NBA career before coming over to the Raptors.

The experience he’s acquired playing both positions has broadened his game, Ibaka believes, to the point that he’s able to play either spot seamlessly.

“I enjoy when I can do both,” said Ibaka. “I can play at four or I can play at five and I think I feel more comfortable because I’m flexible to do whatever I want to do. I don’t want to be limited because when I play the five I can roll and when I play at the four I know I can pop. So this just gives me more flexibility to be on offence and even defence, too, and to play freely.”

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The versatility Ibaka brings to the table also gives Nurse freedom to experiment with more unconventional looks, too.

Not only should we expect to see the Raptors coach play Ibaka and Gasol together, we should also expect to see Nurse play a lineup without any guards at all, or maybe just one.

This is the “jumbo lineup” Nurse speaks of and on Wednesday the Raptors coach even said he finished practice with Pascal Siakam playing point guard with no Kyle Lowry nor Fred VanVleet on the floor.

As goofy as that may be to think, Nurse has experimented with this giant lineup before this season and has liked what he’s seen.

“Defensively, right away, it was awesome,” Nurse said of this large-sized unit last week. “…Usually when you’re too big, you can’t keep up or you can’t get back or you can’t guard all the pick-and-roll actions or whatever, but it didn’t. That’s the one nice thing about some of our size and length. Like, from OG [Anunoby] to Pascal to Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson], these guys can go out and move their feet and guard the good majority of the perimeter players.

“So there’s the plus. I don’t know what the drawback is. I didn’t see one, really.”

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The Raptors are blessed with Swiss Army Knife-like players all over their roster, giving Nurse the luxury to test things like this jumbo lineup.

In a way, it’s a little ironic that the team’s first scrimmage opponent this Friday will be the Houston Rockets, a team that plays exclusively small ball.

Seeing this class of diametrically opposed styles will prove to be very interesting, even if it’ll only be for shorter bursts.

“They’re fast, they’re small and if you can play against them with a big lineup I’m sure you can play against any team with it,” Ibaka said of the Rockets.

Nurse will be thinking exactly the same.

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Davis, Ibaka speak up

• Raptors rookie Terence Davis also took part of Wednesday’s team media availability and answered only one question.

He was asked a question about basketball, but like many of his NBA peers Davis decided to utilize his time in front of the camera to draw attention to a much more important matter.

“…A lot of the guys, we’re united right now. We’re just keeping the focus on Breonna Taylor’s killers,” said Davis. “That’s what I want to keep the focus on this week. I can answer all of you guys’ questions – it’s nothing against you guys – and I can answer all of you guys’ questions post-game or any time after we’re playing but right now I just want to keep the focus on what’s really going on in the world.

“There’s a lot of social injustice going on and I just want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing and using my platform, as well as other athletes, to just continue with this thing, man. We all stand united. We don’t all have to be on the same team but we’re still united in the league. So, like I said, I just want to keep the focus on Breonna Taylor’s killers and just keep that going, man, because it’s still going on in the world.”

• Ibaka also talked about Breonna Taylor and the need to continue fighting for social justice above all else.

“You know right now with what is going on around the world, I’m trying to focus more on that than just my cooking or the other stuff. That is going to come,” said Ibaka. “But we have big issues going on right now, bigger problems than just cooking.

“Justice and equality, that is what we are trying to fight for now. Actually I’m trying to create a show where I can give other players and myself the opportunity to come to share our thoughts, to talk about what is going on now. I’m sure you know, but we want justice for Breonna Taylor and that is something we are trying to fight for, any player in the league, any player on my team, we try to fight for. I think she deserves justice so my focus right now is on that.”

• Ibaka was also asked what he was going to put on the back of his jersey and said he’d settled on “Respect Us.”

“We want to have respect because we’ve earned it and we deserve it,” said Ibaka. “And I want all the kids, especially with what’s going on right now, in Africa to know that they deserve respect.”

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