Of the cavalcade of supreme bummers last years’ sweep against the Cavaliers produced, Serge Ibaka’s sudden descent into unplayability was the most glum. Even as recently as Game 2 against Washington, Playoff Serge was very much a thing; a phrase a comfort, and a promise that the fluctuations in his regular season play and effort were worth enduring. He’d never failed to take names in the post-season before.
Eight ghostly performances and a handful of benchings over the remainder of the Raptors’ 2018 playoff run shattered Serge’s big game reputation. Now he begins the rebuilding process.
Step one came on Wednesday as the Raptors opened the season with a convincing 116-104 win over their old playoff tormentors. The version of Serge Raps fans saw in the win was a new one; it won’t be hard to get roped back into believing in that Serge.
It was a modest night, numbers-wise. Nine points, seven boards, three blocks, two steals, an assist, and a grimy looking 2-of-10 shooting line. A superficial glance of the box score might imply no change in Ibaka’s ability or demeanour, whatsoever. Toronto coach Nick Nurse had a sideline view of Ibaka’s first regular season off-the-bench appearance since 2011; he saw a different Serge, too.
“Two-for-ten from the field yet I think he played pretty well,” Nurse said after the game. “He was on the glass, he had six fouls and I think five of them were loose ball fouls.
“There was a ton of loose ball fouls on us on the rebounding too,” said Nurse. “But I dunno at least we’re hitting some people on those. I’m not gonna be too disappointed in that.”
“It’s kind of one of the things that’s changed for him. [In the past] he’s been standing around the three point line not getting much of a chance to offensive rebound. He got some hands on some and went for a lot more. He had some really nice moves after getting them that kind of just rolled off.
“I’m not gonna get real caught up with the 2-for-10 for him cause I thought he played hard,” added Nurse. “[He] played unselfishly for the team and did a lot of positive things.”
Giving a shit recklessly beats the hell out of the eager passiveness we came to expect out of Ibaka last year. There’s no a way a couple of his ejections weren’t a least a little bit a product of his disinterest in finishing out a game on, say, a Wednesday night against the Hornets.
A new role and primary function should help keep Ibaka from getting bored this season. Nurse’s refusal to lock in a nightly starting five and seeming to focus on playing match-ups at all times should keep Ibaka on his toes all year.
We saw how constantly being on call might manifest itself in the closing moments of the home opener. After putting in a workmanlike six-ish minute spurt to start the fourth, Ibaka got a breather as Jonas Valanciunas checked in. Then Cavs coach Tyronn Lue moved some chess pieces.
“They tried to sneak us and go small there late out of a timeout, and I’d just put JV back in less than a minute ago and I told him (JV) before the game ‘that’s what they’re gonna do, they’re gonna go to a time out and you have just entered,’” said Nurse, relaying his crunch time thought process after the game.
“And in the past we might not have made that switch cause it was JV’s rotation but [Serge] went in there and didn’t let [Kevin] Love get off any three balls to get further back in the game.”
Maybe starting every night at the four was a bit much for Ibaka. Shoehorned into a position that wasn’t his anymore, with one eye on his future Food Network gig, and a somewhat odious cap figure tied to his name, the burdens on his plate were many. Not unlike one Terrence Ross back in the day, a “demotion” might prove reinvigorating.
As a bench player, Serge is freed to be the centre he’s been for two or three years. His offensive chops, once a gummy diversion for the primo stuff the starters were partaking in, is now a boon upon which the half-court-offensively-challenged bench can lean on. If it’s an off night, Nurse has still options, whether it’s more Jonas Valanciunas, a sprinkling of Greg Monroe, or some experimental, Pascal Siakam-at-the-five stuff. One of Masai Ujiri’s grandest achievements is crafting a roster on which a $20 million guy doesn’t have to play a part in the outcome of every game.
Ibaka is likely to serve a purpose on this Raptors team more profound than that of a steady, energetic centre who starts sometimes, too. This is a machine of a roster, stocked with switchiness and shooting and wing depth and all the things they really like on that one NBA podcast with a basketball pun in the name. Ibaka’s imperfections will humanize the Raptors. It’s fitting then that the Raptors dealt Ross for his big man spiritual facsimile — a guy oozing with talent who doesn’t quite piece it all together, but still churns out some of the most delightful flourishes you’ll see from any Raptor. Kawhi Leonard doesn’t brick his bunnies, but he ain’t swatting the shit out of someone and dropping two thumbs on the crowd either. Every team needs a Serge — a lightning rod of frustration whose successes feel earned. He’s one of the few Raptors not dogged by the ultimate stifler of joy: heavy expectations.
Ibaka doesn’t warrant a lot of fan belief after the way last year finished, but it’s not as if his lasting image in the minds of Raps fans has been painted in full. It doesn’t have to be one of bricked jumpers or befuddling turnovers. With the give-a-shit meter tuned up, Ibaka can win back a fan base with a storied history of falling in love with big men who do the little things — the loose ball dives, the offensive board crashing, the loud jams that sometimes miss out of over-exuberance.
It’s one game. Trust isn’t regained overnight. It’s going to take time, and good habit-building for people to once again embrace Ibaka as a critical part of the team and not an out-sized growth weighing it down.
But the early indications suggest that Serge is, at the very least, going to try his damn best to make those changes. What more can you really ask of anyone?