Painful 2016 loss reminds Raptors’ Ibaka of need for focus vs. Warriors


Toronto Raptors centre Serge Ibaka (9) will return from an ankle injury against the Utah Jazz. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — If you’ve spent any time drinking in the city of Toronto, maybe at the student-packed bars surrounding U of T on Bloor and College, or in one of those dim little spots on Ossington, or at a show somewhere in Queen West, you’ve probably made the stumble over to Spadina and Dundas for a little delightfully greasy, late-night Chinese. You’ve sat at one of those big, round tables covered with layer after layer of disposable plastic. You’ve put down plates of black bean beef, Shanghai noodles, Szechuan chicken. If you were at the right spot, maybe they gave you a pot of cold tea.

And if you’d done so Sunday morning at around 2 a.m. after the Toronto Raptors qualified for the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals with a comeback victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, you might’ve seen Serge Ibaka. Because there the big Congolese centre was wearing a long, flowing beige button-up and Dick Tracy fedora, walking past those windows with the flickering neon fish and lobster, under that red-and-yellow banner advertising “ALL DAY DIM SUM,” and through the double doors of Rol San Restaurant. It was nearly a riot.

“That was crazy. Crazy. Everybody got up. Everybody was so drunk, but everybody was so happy,” Ibaka says. “Everybody’s jumping. It’s crazy. I was like, ‘Wow. This is amazing, man. Amazing.’”

Ibaka doesn’t mess around much with his diet during the season. After 10 long years of battles waged beneath NBA baskets, he knows how important it is to eat wisely, rest well and recover properly. That’s why he’s always the last one out of the Raptors dressing room after games and the lone guy still kicking around the gym or the trainer’s room long after practices.

But following a game like Saturday’s? After a monumental win for this franchise, this city, these long-suffering fans? When Ibaka ensured his second career NBA Finals appearance, seven years after his first in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder? That calls for a plate of pork-fried rice.

“Sometimes you have to go spoil yourself, you know?” Ibaka says. “Instead of going back home and eating vegetables.”

For all the post-season experience these Raptors boast — five of the team’s eight-man rotation have played 75 career playoff games or more — no one’s been here more often than Ibaka. Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday will be his 128th NBA playoff game, the start of his 24th series and a chance to make his ninth post-season run end differently than his first eight.

Of course, the inevitable consequence of chasing that many rings is heartbreak, of which Ibaka’s had his share. He lost a Western Conference Final in 2011, a gentlemanly swept from the playoffs by Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, and an NBA Finals in 2012, when he was on the other side of Lebron James’s first championship with the Miami Heat.

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But of all the times his post-seasons have ended before he’d liked, Ibaka says the most painful is still 2016’s Western Conference Final, when the Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead against the same Golden State Warriors the Raptors will compete with for this year’s title.

“Man, that hurts me. Every time I think about it, I’m like, ‘man…'” he says. “‘Three to one, we lost? Come on, man.’ It still hurts. It still hurts.”

Ibaka calls it the toughest loss of his career. Through four games, the Thunder were in control, outscoring Golden State by 31 points in the aggregate. But after the Warriors won an offensive slugfest in Game 5, Klay Thompson went bananas in Game 6, hitting 11 threes, five of them in the fourth quarter.

“Since I’ve been playing in the NBA, 10 years now, what Klay did in that game,” Ibaka says, “I’ve never seen that before.”

As they do, the Warriors overcame 13-point deficits in both Games 6 and 7 of that series on their way to a second of what is now five consecutive NBA Finals. And what’s a little unfair is that Oklahoma City’s best player in that series, the incomprehensibly talented and sensitive Kevin Durant, now plays for the Warriors himself.

Golden State didn’t need Durant to win its first title. And it didn’t need him this year to get through the Conference Finals after Durant strained his calf late in the second round. Without their best player, the Warriors simply rode the generational shooting of Steph Curry and Thompson, plus a reinvigorated Draymond Green, en route to sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers despite facing deficits of 17 points or more in three of the four games.

Ibaka knows what that’s all about. And while he didn’t want to compare this Warriors team to the one he faced in 2016, or this Raptors team to the Thunder group that blew that series lead, he does feel he’s learned something from being on the wrong end of the Golden State experience in the past.

“You cannot be lazy against them. You have to be locked in for 48 minutes every night when you go out there,” he says. “They keep moving — it’s non-stop. [Curry] and Klay and Draymond, the way they push the ball out there, it’s one of those teams where you have to be focused for 48 minutes. You cannot relax, because if you relax and they get hot, it’s going to be a long night.”

Ibaka’s right, which may be a troubling thing for the Raptors considering the inconsistency of his own play. At times in these playoffs, Ibaka’s been a force — aggressive on the boards, scoring on little bunnies out of pick-and-pops and taking good care of the basketball. At others, he’s been error-prone, timid on the glass and generally ineffective. His game scores in the playoffs have ranged from as high as 17.1 in a dominant Game 4 vs. Milwaukee to as low as minus-3.0 in a frustrating Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Some of that variance could come down to role. Ibaka started 629 consecutive regular season games, stretching from the second year of his career in 2010-11 through to the end of 2017-18. But that streak was snapped on opening night in October, as a new head coach Nick Nurse endeavoured to transition Ibaka’s primary position from power forward to centre. The problem was, the Raptors already had an established starter at the five in Jonas Valanciunas. So, Ibaka spent the first few weeks of the season trading starts with the Lithuanian big man based on matchups.

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When Valanciunas dislocated a thumb in December, Ibaka took over the starting job and provided Nurse with consistent production over the heart of the season, averaging 15 points and nine rebounds a night from the time Valanciunas went down through to the end of February.

But that’s when Ibaka was forced back to the bench, ceding his starting spot to Marc Gasol, who was acquired for Valanciunas at the trade deadline. Ibaka got the call here and there over the stretch run, but come the playoffs Gasol was entrenched as the starter.

The adjustment hasn’t been seamless. Nurse has said that Ibaka occasionally takes time to feel his way into a game. But his time’s been limited, the 27.2 minutes per night Ibaka averaged this season were his lowest in seven years. The 21.3 minutes he’s averaging this post-season are his lowest in nine trips to the playoffs.

And yet, maybe one of the most underappreciated keys to Toronto’s success this post-season has been Ibaka’s willingness to accept that diminished role, do more with less and provide energy and grit off the bench. It isn’t the easiest thing to do.

When the Raptors are at their best, Ibaka’s offering a defensive presence beneath their rim while getting out to contest shots, attacking the offensive glass for put-backs, hitting paint twos and three-pointers and operating fluidly with Kyle Lowry in pick-and-rolls. And he’s been an interesting bellwether for his team. In Ibaka’s best nine games this post-season by game score, the Raptors are undefeated. In his worst four, the Raptors are winless.

“That’s the playoffs — it’s not easy,” he says. “But if you can bring it every night — energy, toughness — you’ll be in the Finals like we are. That’s why we’re here. Because we found a way against Milwaukee to bring the energy every night.”

And if they can find a way against Golden State, if the underdog Raptors can slay the NBA’s greatest beast, it might mean another triumphant 2 a.m. trip to Spadina and College for pork-fried rice. It’ll take a village, but it’s hard to imagine Toronto being successful without Ibaka providing reliable production and defensive effort off the bench. But, with the wound from that 2016 Conference Final loss still raw, Ibaka’s less concerned with his process, and more with the result.

“In the playoffs, you don’t think about your own performance. You think about winning. It’s about the way the team’s playing,” he says. “If we’re in the Finals, it’s because each player that’s contributed to the team has done something good. And we’re in the Finals. That means I did what I had to do in the time I was on the court to help the team. So, for me, that’s good.”

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