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On LeBron’s “perfect” night and Serge Ibaka’s continued struggles

Perfection is a difficult opponent, but LeBron was perfect on Wednesday night. The Toronto Raptors were great (offensively), but they weren’t perfect. It could be the difference.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There is no counter to perfection. It will prevail in pretty much any scenario it finds itself in — unless we’re talking about Mr. Perfect, then there are many answers. But now we go from the ring to the King: LeBron James is no wrestling gimmick. When he’s on, there’s little that can be done to stop him.

As sweet as a victory would’ve tasted on Wednesday night, defeat could almost be considered equally as appetizing. The Toronto Raptors — having played the previous night, and finishing a stretch of seven games in ten days — put up a valiant and profoundly admirable effort against Cleveland, ultimately losing 132-129. It took a herculean performance on the part of LeBron, along with his team shooting 62 percent from three, for Cleveland to squeak out a home win. Not bad considering the stretch Toronto was wrapping up.

As the playoffs approach, Toronto is all but certain to be the East’s top seed. All Game 7s will go through Jurassic Park — where the Raptors are a league-leading 29-6 this season. Is it all that unreasonable to expect Toronto’s Eastern Conference playoff opponents to, one by one, drop Games 1 and 2? History suggests a struggle, but I say no.

Last night’s loss was largely irrelevant, aside from the fact it was the first true teaser of a potential playoff series between the two teams.

While the LeBron James Express Train to the Finals remains full, Toronto can take many positives out of the result and still like their chances in a hypothetical but highly probable playoff matchup. They equaled Cleveland’s three-point output (though were less efficient). They shared the ball, finishing with 32 assists (four more than Cleveland, and eight more than their highest single-game total from the playoff sweep a season ago). The fallout from this game in many ways feels like the OKC loss. In both games, Toronto did everything possible (offensively) to put themselves in a position to win the game.

There was, however, one commonality in the two defeats: the play of Serge Ibaka.

(Sorry, I’ve decided to ignore defense today. Raptors obviously have to clean up that end of the floor).

Ibaka’s Struggles Could Sink Toronto’s Playoff Ship

Would C.J. Miles have helped versus Cleveland? Sure — Cavalier fans will argue that having the likes of Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance Jr. available would’ve resulted in a much more convincing home win. They too may be right, though I’m skeptical. The fact is Cleveland shot over 60 percent — do they shoot 80 percent with Hood and Korver launching from distance? Doubt it. The Cavs were darn near perfect offensively — LeBron, with 17 assists accompanying his 35 points and 30+ percent usage rate, didn’t record a single turnover in almost 40 minutes of action!

Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka, despite having played 23 minutes according to the box score, was once again largely invisible — mere days removed from being more or less irrelevant against the Thunder. If Toronto is going to fulfill their playoff destiny, Ibaka is going to need to play much better than he has.

By now, Toronto understands how teams will defend them in the postseason. Opponents will force DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to give the ball up, allowing them to be playmakers rather than scorers. As a result, Serge (and others) will be afforded a lot of open looks. Whether they make them is anybody’s guess — in his last ten games, Ibaka is shooting 28 percent from three and 34 percent overall. Both numbers are frankly unacceptable.

Criticizing OG Anunoby for his offensive passivity is valid, but Ibaka’s lacklustre offensive contributions are far more concerning when you consider he is meant to be the tertiary option in the offense. Anunoby has shown throughout the season the ability to contribute on offense in a variety of ways — cutting, slashing, baseline drives, an open three here and there — whereas Ibaka is one-dimensional, with most of his shots coming after zero dribbles. He catches, then he shoots, plain and simple. He’s meant to and paid an amount that makes him the most qualified to take pressure off the team’s two All-Stars.

Furthermore, he’s “wide open” for a lot of his shots (a “wide open” shot is defined by as a shot whereby the nearest defender is 6+ feet away). On wide open threes, Ibaka is shooting 34 percent. Last night, he missed a couple of wide-open threes, including one late that would’ve cut the deficit to two with two minutes to play. Ibaka’s offense has not, among other things, been timely in 2018.

I could go on and on about Ibaka’s up but mostly down season. The fact remains he needs to be far more productive, especially when the opposition is elite. It won’t be long until only elite teams remain. Much of Toronto’s playoff success rests on Serge’s willingness to check in at a time many are checking out.

Nobody Said Beating LeBron Would Be Easy

As I touched on before, losing to LeBron’s new cast of characters can be viewed very much through a glass half full lens. It’s humbling in a way. Toronto possesses the best record in the East, but the road to the Finals still goes through LeBron James — you don’t make seven consecutive Finals by fluke.

The Raptors’ discovery and adoption of selfless basketball have put them in a better position to dethrone the King, but they will need to be near-perfect if they are to make it to their first NBA Final and put a stop to LeBron’s perennial party. Anything short of sustained and routine perfection likely will mean more playoff heartbreak.

It’s been the single greatest regular season chapter in Raptors franchise history. The next step is proving it wasn’t a fluke, following it up with the franchise’s best playoff performance. One is substantially more difficult than the other. For the Raptors, the easy part is almost over.

Asked what Wednesday’s victory meant for his team, LeBron issued a clear and powerful reminder to all of us: “I don’t need to remind anybody what my teams are capable of.”

He’s right. And now for the hard part, Toronto.