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Watching the Raptors of the Future with Serge Ibaka

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The Raptors were good, then bad, and then good again. Hopefully Serge Ibaka took note of the reality.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There was a palpable sense of deflation in the media room when coach Dwane Casey admitted the Raptors’ newest acquisition, Serge Ibaka, would not play. The media horde around Casey was sizable — larger than would ordinarily be at a Wednesday night game, the last before the All-Star break, against the hopeless Charlotte Hornets. Everyone, myself included, was there to see Ibaka play.

The Raptors, as you may know, have been reeling. Before last night’s game they had lost 11 of their last 15, and had gone 10-14 since the calendar flipped to 2017. They’d endured the injury-induced absence of All-Star DeMar DeRozan, and continue to wait for the return of do-it-all forward Patrick Patterson. During this latest stretch, the Raptors have also found new and increasingly depressing ways to give games away — a trend which crescendo-ed (we hope) to last Sunday night with a Pistons comeback win that had Kyle Lowry claiming he had “an idea” about what had to change.

Before Casey’s announcement, we got a chance to meet the personification of that change. Clad in a Raptors zip-up (and toque!), Ibaka addressed the media before last night’s game and said most everything one would want to hear.

One of the (semi) unspoken things regarding Ibaka’s arrival was the gradual decline in some of his numbers. There are a variety of reasons for this — the emergence of Steven Adams as a force in Oklahoma City, the gradual shift of Ibaka’s role to the perimeter, the overall trash level of the Orlando Magic. It’s created an odd state of expectation in Toronto. We hope of course that he’ll fit right in as the starting power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas, or be able to play in tandem with Patterson, but we don’t quite know yet. On paper, it looks great.

And while Ibaka has said all good things about Toronto, about his relationship with Masai Ujiri and assistant coach Rex Kalamian, about playing hard for a contender, he then had to sit there with us and watch the Raptors play last night. If last night’s game is any indication, there’s both work still to be done — and a reason for hope.

*****

Here’s what we saw last night: the Raptors played a strong first quarter, with Valanciunas beasting and the DeRozan-Lowry duo putting in their usual effort. The Raptors opted to go small with Norman Powell inserted into the starting lineup — a smart change given the team had no active power forwards, and the Hornets’ lack of big men. After one quarter, the Raptors were up 31-20.

What followed were two of the worst quarters of Raptors basketball I’ve seen in some time. Keep in mind here, this Hornets team came in a listless 1-9 in its last ten games and looked even more dispirited than the Raptors, and yet: they tore it up. They held Toronto to 27 points in 24 minutes while scoring 55 of their own. Kemba Walker moved around unimpeded, Frank freakin’ Kaminsky looked like a magician, and the Raptors could not get anything going. For his part, DeRozan shot 4-of-14, made a mere two trips to the free throw line (missing both), and sat, clearly upset, with a -26 through those two quarters. It was bad.

If you were Serge Ibaka, promised a happier place where the basketball was fun and meaningful, and the fans loud and appreciative, last night would have been a rude awakening. The buzzer for the third quarter sounded amidst a chorus of boos and the score at 75-58 against Toronto. Yikes.

*****

There briefly emerged a darkest timeline in which Lowry, fed up, leaves Toronto, and Ibaka fulfils the feared rental role. The Raptors are left with DeRozan, flaws and all, Valanciunas, flaws and all, and whatever can be salvaged from flotsam and young players they have on the roster. It’s not something any Toronto fan wants to consider, at least not yet. Except, as the fourth quarter got rolling, the Raptors trotted out a lineup featuring mainstays Lowry, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll (who was magnificent in 38 minutes), plus the recently returned Delon Wright and rookie Jakob Poeltl.

On paper, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, and fans on Twitter were already anticipating a Bruno Caboclo appearance and another terrible loss. Yet somehow the reality turned out to be much better, as Wright’s herky-jerky game, the hustle of Poeltl, Joseph and Carroll, and the shot making of Lowry brought the Raptors back. They would outscore the Hornets 32-10 in the frame, and win the game.

After a run of tense post-game locker rooms in which the Raptors tried to explain what the hell was going on, the tenor of last night was a celebration. Before Lowry and DeRozan spoke (they go last, as is the custom), the aforementioned media throng gathered around Wright’s locker and took in the show. There was Jared Sullinger’s high-pitched laugh, and Lucas Nogueira’s relentless trouble-making. Poeltl tried to remain calm as he answered questions with Bebe looming behind him. Norman Powell, delighted at Delon’s shy presence in the spotlight, chirped away as Wright earnestly answered scrum questions. Meanwhile, Patterson kept asking why the young guard was sweating so much. It was really hard not to be swept up by it.

These are the Raptors we know exist, a team that jumps off the page into the living realm as something more exciting than a collection of stats. We saw them play a wholly imperfect game, and yet they came together and won it anyway. It was the vision of a brighter (and perhaps more wild) future.

And if Ibaka saw all of this, or heard tell of it later, the hope is he enjoyed the scene and looks forward to making his contribution. The Raptors are now 33-24, tied for fourth in the East, with 25 games left to play. They have a break until February 24th and then... there’s still a lot left for them to prove.