TORONTO — Late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Serge Ibaka dribbled into the paint and encountered a wall of opposition bigs. His back to the basket and a double-team coming, Ibaka made the smart play and pivoted to fire a firm, on-target pass to an open Fred VanVleet right in front of the Toronto Raptors‘ bench.
Thing is, VanVleet was so open because he wasn’t in the game. He’d checked out 30 seconds earlier, but had yet to put on his red warmups or take his seat on the bench, instead standing right in front of it just inches off the court.
These things happen when you haven’t played in a while, as was the case for Ibaka, who was making his first appearance since Nov. 10 when he sprained his right ankle. And the fact the Toronto Raptors were molly-whopping the Utah Jazz by nearly three converted touchdowns meant everyone could have a good laugh about it.
And, beyond that, the fact the Raptors went 8-2 in Ibaka’s absence — including rousing victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers — gives the entire team plenty of reason to be enjoying itself. Toronto’s been playing exceptionally well in spite of missing its backup centre and starting point guard. And now, with Ibaka back in the fold and Kyle Lowry likely following sometime this week, the Raptors are positioned to get even better.
“Everyone’s playing good basketball at the moment,” said Pascal Siakam, who dropped the quietest 35 you’ll ever see on the Jazz. “You’ve just got to be proud of what we’ve been able to do so far with those guys out. And now, having Serge back and Kyle coming back — it’s going to be fun.”
Ibaka’s injury was so dispiriting because it came at a time when he was playing some of the finest basketball of his Raptors tenure. Finally settled into his bench role behind starting centre Marc Gasol, Ibaka was finding ways to impact games in a significant way with insignificant minutes.
Coming off a playoff run to which he contributed some truly crucial performances — along with some notable duds, it must be said — Ibaka was putting up 14 points and 6.5 rebounds while playing 23 minutes a night over the first eight games of the season. That’s essentially what he averaged while starting and playing 30-plus minutes per game earlier in his career.
And Raptors fans obviously noticed. Amid Sunday’s barn-storming first quarter, in which the Raptors shot 60 per cent and opened up a 17-point lead, the biggest ovation came when Ibaka checked into the game with 90 seconds left in the period.
Playing his first shift in nearly a month, Ibaka looked like a guy who hadn’t played in nearly a month. He bricked his three first-half attempts, looked out of sorts defensively and lacked the usual vigour he brings to the game. He was finding his sea legs, essentially. And, if anything, the blowout nature of Sunday’s game created perfect conditions for Ibaka to spend a little time shaking off the rust.
He started looking more and more like himself toward the end of the shift, altering shots on the defensive end — where the Raptors held the Jazz to 28 per cent shooting in the first half — while making shrewd decisions offensively, keeping the ball moving and disregarding opportunities for himself to feed more open teammates.
That was the case midway through the second quarter, when Ibaka passed up a chance to go to work on Rudy Gobert outside the paint, instead flipping the ball to Terence Davis and taking Mike Conley out with a screen while his teammate drilled a three. And moments later, when he had an opening to shoot from beyond the arc with Joe Ingles closing out, Ibaka opted instead to throw a little bounce pass to an unguarded Siakam in the corner for another three.
Forced to re-enter earlier than expected in the third quarter when Gasol picked up a fourth foul, Ibaka continued to make winning plays. After a hook attempt over Gobert rimmed out, Ibaka pounced on his own rebound and quickly found an open VanVleet in the corner — this time, actually on the floor — for a three. A possession later, Ibaka finally got on the board via a pick-and-pop with Davis that looked just as fluid as the ones he runs with Lowry.
It was off to the races from there. A catch-and-shoot three came quickly. Then, feeding off his own momentum, Ibaka finished an and-one in the paint over Gobert, coming away pumping his fists and yelling like he has so many times before. It was ultimately a 13-point second half for the 10-year vet.
“What makes Serge special is that when he really gets his motor cooking, he’s a really intimidating factor in a game,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I mean, we don’t lose those games very often. When he’s cooking and going, he becomes a great presence on defence. And his offence has been really, really solid this year.”
Ibaka’s return creates reverberations down the roster, of course. The minutes he’s gaining have to come at someone’s expense, and Sunday that someone was Chris Boucher. A source of energy, activity on the offensive glass and fighting-above-his-weight rim protection throughout Ibaka’s absence, Boucher had carved out a steady little role for himself off the bench. And the more he played, the more he found a groove, putting up double-doubles in three of his past six games entering Sunday.
But Ibaka will receive that playing time now, while Boucher drops back to the third centre spot on Toronto’s depth chart. Could Boucher still factor in playing off of Gasol or Ibaka as a four in bigger lineups? Sure. We’ve seen it in spells this season, mostly with Gasol. But those runs of play haven’t gone particularly well, as the Raptors have played to a minus-8.9 net rating in 44 minutes (spread across 11 games) with Boucher and Gasol on the floor.
Boucher playing with Ibaka has been a better combination, as the Raptors posted an 18.4 net rating over 21 minutes with the duo much earlier this season. Of course, both those samples are rather small, and aren’t necessarily predictive of anything. That’s just how it’s gone so far. But it certainly sounds like we’re more likely to see a Boucher-Ibaka pairing than a Boucher-Gasol one in the coming weeks.
“Can we play Serge and Chris together? Probably,” Nurse said prior to Sunday’s game. “We just have to take a look. But I’m playing them. Chris has deserved and earned minutes.”
There are certainly worse dilemmas than struggling to find minutes for your third capable, floor-stretching big. That was the case Sunday, as Boucher didn’t get off the bench until the fourth quarter when the game was long-ago decided. Nurse will surely look to get him some run earlier on in games going forward, particularly against bigger opponents.
Plus, it’s professional sports. Things happen. The Raptors will need Boucher to play significant minutes at some point again this season. We just don’t yet know when. And, for now, it can’t hurt to give Ibaka as much floor time as possible to regain his feel and conditioning.
Because it takes some time to work out kinks. Ibaka’s fourth-quarter pass to a teammate on the bench would be one example. Not that VanVleet was unhappy to be on the receiving end of it.
“I like the fact that he’s passing to me,” VanVleet said afterward, smirking. “That’s progress. I’ll take it.”