Why Serge Ibaka’s fight won’t have long-lasting impact on Raptors

Watch as an unhappy Serge Ibaka grabs Marquese Chriss by the throat which leads to punches being thrown and both players being ejected.

As the third quarter of the Toronto Raptors‘ ugly blowout loss to the 17-50 Cleveland Cavaliers was coming to an end, centres Serge Ibaka and Marquese Chriss got into a brouhaha that resulted in both players being ejected.

After locking up under the basket, Ibaka tumbled to the ground. When Chriss stared down Ibaka from high above and reportedly said a few words, the Raptors big man took offence and retaliated and went after his opponent —  first going for his neck (a bad look) and then throwing some errant punches, a trademark of most NBA fights.

Chriss is no angel (accidental Mindfreak reference. It won’t happen again, I swear) and has been on the wrong end of a dirty play or two before.

Of course, in the case of the Ibaka skirmish, Chriss isn’t really at fault here — he stood over Ibaka as a subtle intimidation attempt, which, in my opinion is fair game. The NBA, it should be noted, would disagree and have been cracking down on any form of confrontation, for better and worse:

Similarly, Ibaka, in my books, has every right to stand up for himself, even if in this case he took it just a little too far.

Of course, it’s not the first time Ibaka has turned to fisticuffs when challenged on the court. Here are probably the two most notable examples during his Toronto tenure:

Given his history of altercations — and that he was pretty clearly the aggressor versus Chriss — there is speculation that the scuffle could cost Ibaka multiple games.

In the short-term, the Raptors will almost definitely be without Ibaka’s services.

If the team were engaged in a race for the first seed in the East, his absence would hold more significance. But, despite being within two and a half games of the first-place Milwaukee Bucks, nothing the Raptors are doing or saying suggests they have any urgency or need to make a run at the No. 1 seed. They’re thinking playoffs, and if they wanted the East’s top spot they wouldn’t be emphasizing rest down the stretch as they have.

Ibaka has been great this season, one of the most improved Raptors and has really settled into his role at centre nicely from day one. You want him in the lineup for obvious reasons, but his brief absence will lead to a bigger role and starter’s minutes for Marc Gasol — which could be a good thing for a player who projects to be fairly crucial once the playoffs role around. Ibaka’s suspension could even speed up what seems inevitable and push Gasol to the full-time starter role from here on out.

It also means that the Raptors will be without Ibaka for their upcoming meeting on Thursday versus the Los Angeles Lakers, whom the centre famously torched in their only previous meeting this season, erupting for 34 points on 15-17 shooting.

Could there be any long-term implications or worries for Raptors fans?

More than one colleague have suggested that Ibaka’s reaction — and subsequent expected suspension — is foreboding and raises potential issues come playoff time. “Could his temper become a liability in the playoffs?” read one email I received this morning.

I don’t buy it.

Basketball can be an emotional sport, and, yes, those emotions are amplified come playoff time. But I’ll give credit to a veteran with over 100 post-season games to recognize the risk of turning into a Rock’em Sock’em figurine in the midst of a crucial playoff series.

This may have sped up the inevitable as well, and expedited Gasol’s journey to the Raptors’ starting lineup on a permanent basis heading into the playoffs.

Look, should Ibaka have kept his cool? Sure.

Is it a problem that he acted on his impulses and went after Chriss? Not really. (Disclaimer: I watched one short clip of A&E’s nutso reality show 60 Days In on YouTube recently, and now the site has been suggesting a bunch of prison documentaries to me, which I’ve readily consumed. In the process I’ve learned that if someone disrespects you in that environment, even in a minor way as Chriss did with Ibaka, you have to fight, lest you want your tater-tots stolen at breakfast the next day and every day thereafter. Rules are rules. The basketball court is no prison, obviously, but there is a code of sorts between the sidelines that doesn’t exist in the civilian world. It doesn’t excuse Ibaka going for Chriss’ neck at first, mind you. That’s stepping too far.)

Given the timing of the season, and the context of the game, Ibaka’s rage-out and impending penalty isn’t a big deal. He should have known better, no question, but in the midst of a lifeless blowout against arguably the NBA’s worst team, at least one Raptor showed some fight.

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