Valanciunas’s looming return expected to boost Raptors, Ibaka

Kawhi Leonard posted a team-high 18 points and Serge Ibaka dropped 16 of his own with 12 rebounds, as the Toronto Raptors go on to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 121-103.

TORONTO — Sunday afternoon, as the Toronto Raptors leisurely folded and stored the tired Los Angeles Clippers, 121-103, as if they were long-unworn shirts in a Marie Kondo clip, Serge Ibaka found his way to a tidy 16 points and 12 rebounds, his sixth consecutive game with a double-double.

That’s a little surprising to hear, no? Hasn’t Ibaka been struggling of late? Well, the Raptors as a whole have been struggling of late. But wasn’t Ibaka particularly cold? Didn’t he come into Sunday’s game following four straight nights on the wrong side of plus-minus?

Yes, he did. He shot 4-of-15 in Toronto’s disheartening loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, capping a five-game stretch in which he averaged 42 per cent from the field, well off his 51 per cent career rate and the 52 per cent he’s shooting on the season. His net rating over that span was minus-6.0. His effective field-goal rate (42.4 per cent) and true shooting percentage (48.5) were each more than 10 points below his season averages.

But with Jonas Valanciunas out, Greg Monroe borderline unplayable in certain matchups, and intriguing-yet-overmatched project Chris Boucher the only other centre on the depth chart, Ibaka has remained heavily involved regardless of how he’s playing, which is how all those double-doubles happen. His 21.6 per cent usage rate since Valanciunas went down is second on the team to Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam’s usage is 20.3; Kyle Lowry’s is 18.9.

And the Raptors certainly tried to get their centre involved early on Sunday, with four of the team’s first five possessions resulting in an Ibaka action. He turned the ball over on a charge; he drove and finished a soft-touch layup; he bricked a three, missing his 19th consecutive shot from distance, a streak that began eight games prior.

Ibaka ended the steak a quarter later, taking a feed from Danny Green beyond the arc and hesitating for a moment before realizing his look was too wide open not to take. By halftime, he had his double-double. And by the end, he led the Raptors at plus-14, finishing with a strong 6-of-9 from the field.

So, has Ibaka been good or bad of late? The answer is probably both. He’s somewhere in between. But what’s been clear for a while is that the Raptors could really use the return of Valanciunas — which should come any game now — in order to slot Ibaka back into a lower-usage role that better suits him, give the offence more options, and help shore up Toronto’s lapsing defence.

As you’d expect, the Raptors have been scoring fewer points in the paint in the nearly two months since Valanciunas went down and have suffered a slight drop in rebounding. But his absence has been felt most defensively, as opponents are having much more success on the glass and in Toronto’s paint.

The Raptors’ net rating has also suffered dramatically in Valanciunas’s absence, dropping from 7.9 in the 30 games prior to 0.1 in the 23 games after. It’s been felt at both ends, as the Raptors’ offensive rating is down three points, while their defensive rating is up five. That can’t all be due to missing one player, of course. It’s much more correlation than causation. But being without Valanciunas plays its part.

Valanciunas is one of the team’s best screen setters, and crucial to helping open up Lowry for good looks out of high screen-and-rolls. In Valanciunas’s absence, the Raptors have tried to use Ibaka similarly with mixed results. In an effort to get Lowry going offensively, coach Nick Nurse has run plenty of plays that result in Ibaka screening for him, whether it’s a quick dribble hand-off on an inbounds play or a more elaborate double staggered screen.

Ibaka’s done his best, but he’s much more of a pick-and-pop weapon as opposed to Valanciunas, who can cause real problems for defences when he rolls to the basket after setting screens. That only serves to make things more difficult for Lowry, as defenders can guard him closer without the threat of Valanciunas rolling to the rim.

“It puts pressure on the defence,” Nurse said before Sunday’s game. “The screener’s hopefully freeing up the ball a little bit, and then the defence has to adjust to that. The roller’s hopefully putting some pressure on the paint, and the defence has to adjust to that. And that should open up your reads from there. That’s really the essence of a lot of what we do. I think a year ago we were number one in frequency of screen-and-roll in the league. So, it’s a really important part of what we do.”

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Notably, one of the bigger discrepancies in Toronto’s defence since Valanciunas was hurt actually comes a little bit away from the rim, rather than right at it. In the 30 games prior to Valanciunas’s injury, Raptors opponents shot 35.1 per cent from 5-9 feet, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. In 23 games since the big man went down, teams are shooting 46.2 per cent from that range, the NBA’s third-highest rate.

What’s interesting is that opponents are shooting relatively the same from less than five feet. Maybe that means Ibaka’s able to replicate Valanciunas’s presence at the rim, but lacks the length or instincts to alter attempted runners or floaters from 5-9 feet. Or maybe when it comes to the Raptors, a team that’s rarely enjoyed full health and has been susceptible to wide swings in effectiveness from night to night, the numbers can only tell us so much.

“I think our numbers are all over the place, because of guys being in and out, in and out, missing three guys here, four guys there, the centres, the point guards,” Nurse said. “I think our numbers are a little hard to read, to be honest.”

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What’s certain is that Ibaka’s workload over the last two months has skyrocketed, and will need to be managed down the stretch. He went from averaging 27.4 minutes per night prior to Valanciunas’s injury to 31.4 minutes after. Four of his five most demanding nights in terms of minutes came in January. He’s played north of 35 minutes eight times this season, six of them since Valanciunas’s injury. Sunday was the first time in five games that he played fewer than 30.

As the Raptors were starching the Clippers Sunday, Nurse was able to keep Ibaka on the bench for the final 16 minutes of the game, which is a start. But once Valanciunas is back in the rotation, it will likely make sense for Ibaka to take a few full games off and rest up ahead of the playoffs.

When exactly will that happen? The best answer we have is soon. After having surgery on December 13 to relocate his left thumb and repair damage caused by an aggressive swat from Golden State Warriors agitator Draymond Green, Valanciunas was expected to be in a cast for a month. But he had his sutures removed three weeks later and began a rehabilitation process intended to regain his range of motion and re-strengthen his joints. He initially wore a splint for basketball activities, but quickly progressed to working with his thumb merely taped.

And in the last couple weeks, his activity has ramped up significantly, as he’s returned to practice and begun aggressively drilling his post work in one-on-one situations with Raptors development staff. It’s not uncommon to see him working with Jamal Magloire long after formal practice has ended, fighting to the rim on drive after drive. Recently, Valanciunas began participating in full-contact scrimmages, upping his conditioning and reacclimating himself to the Raptors’ systems ahead of his return.

Considering all that, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Valanciunas return sometime during this week’s three-game road trip that will take Toronto through Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New York. But the Raptors could also go the ultra-cautious route and hold him out longer until he’s as close to full health as possible. Only Toronto’s training staff knows when the day will come, but Nurse is certainly ready for it.

“He looks great,” Nurse said. “We had a little live scrimmage the other day, and it’s just a good reminder of how important his size is sometimes. You see him grabbing every defensive rebound and protecting the rim — it just makes us look bigger and longer, right away, when he hits the floor.”

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