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Watch The Tape: Serge Ibaka and his importance against the looming Bucks

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If he hits his shots, Serge Ibaka might be the perfect piece to beat the best team in basketball.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Watch the Tape will teach you absolutely nothing about basketball, how to watch it better, or how it’s properly played. It WILL take you on a tour of some of the finest, and most random Raptors-related (and sometimes adjacent) material on the net.

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Let’s do something unusual for WTT — we’re going to watch an actual basketball play.

There. Wasn’t that refreshing?

No, 2.500 word essays on how Pop is playing 6D chess by playing the media and Kawhi Leonard into staying in Toronto. No long-winded screed about the history of NBA players tossing things at fans (or each other), nope we’re just looking at a play.

And what a play it is.

00:01: This is perhaps the most frightening position you can be in NBA basketball — Giannis Antetokounmpo in full flight coming right at you. You remember that scene in Valkyrie when Nazi Tom Cruise is trying to escape the aerial bombardment?

Yeah, I think it kinda feels like that.

00:02-0:05: But Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam resist the impulse to panic. Look at how Ibaka gets his hips square to Giannis just above the three-point line. This forces Giannis to slow down, just a smidge.

Ibaka does this because he knows he has Siakam behind him. Slowing Giannis has value, because with Siakam there, Antetokounmpo can’t just use one of those giant-puma strides of his to step around Ibaka and glide to the hoop unimpeded.

Siakam’s also opened up his hips — allowing him to react to any sudden change in Giannis’ direction. Bracketed like that Giannis has one choice: go straight at the hoop.

Usually this still ends in a dunk, but Siakam’s length and positioning means Giannis can’t explode to the hoop. This leaves a sliver of opportunity for the recovering Ibaka to use his length and athleticism to meet Ibaka at the hoop for the clean denial.

This is as good as you can get at defending Giannis. You need two players with fantastic defensive instincts, as well as length and athleticism. You can make an argument that Toronto might be the only team in the NBA with two front-court players who can do this.

0:06-0:08: As the Milwaukee crowd lustily boos (sensing that the game is starting to turn), Fred Van Vleet corrals the loose-ball. He immediately head-man’s it up to Siakam who somehow is already ahead of him on the court — despite being farthest being the play when the ball is recovered.

0:08-0:11: Siakam is now doing his “Baby Freak” thing. His aggressive drive sucks in the entire Bucks defense. Brook Lopez has no chance to contain this anywhere but at the rim, and to his credit, does. Now, Siakam might have still been able to get a quality shot up over Lopez, but he makes the smarter play. Pitching out to Ibaka...

0:13: Wap! Ibaka drains it. Pushing what was about to be a one-bucket lead, into a seven point game.

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I’m in the corner of those who believe that the Milwaukee Bucks are, right now, the best team in basketball. Sure, when the playoffs come around it very well may still be the Warriors, but Golden State is dealing with obvious depth issues, a shocking lack of three-point shooting outside of the big three, and the physical deterioration of key players Andre Igoudala and Shaun Livingston.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee has rampaged through the NBA. They’re only percentage points ahead of the Raps, but miles ahead in point differential- a much better predictor of future success. They’ve handily beaten the Raps, Celtics, Warriors, Blazers, Sixers and Pacers, all by 13 points or more. They’re the only team in the NBA in the top 5 of offensive and defensive efficiency.

Head Coach Mike Bundenhozer has done what was obvious to everyone but Jason Kidd and surrounded Giannis with shooters, while dialing back Kidd’s hyper-energetic, and risky, defensive schemes.

A key element of what makes the Bucks go is Brook Lopez, who has become the preeminent high-volume shooting big in the game, if not league history. He’s averaging nine threes per-36 minutes and hitting them at a 37.5% clip.

The set-up has a number of obvious advantages:

1) Dude can score.

2) Big-Men have to venture outside the pain, leaving it open, not just for Giannis, but for clever drivers like Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon (who killed the Raps late in their Dec 9th loss), and now George Hill.

And it’s not just the guards who take advantage. Lopez has been cramming over fools who too aggressively try to disrupt his shot.

3) By ending most possessions behind the three-point line it makes it easy for Lopez to get back into position defensively.

This matters more than you think. While Lopez may not be exceptionally mobile, he’s a huge part of the Bucks defense. Among players who directly contest at least five shots per game near the rim, Lopez is tied for fifth in the league by holding them 11.4% below their expected field gold percentage (interestingly, he’s tied with Serge.)

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Add that all together and you can make the case that Lopez might be the second, or at worst, third most important player for Milwaukee.

But Lopez comes with that one massive weakness: Mobility. Budenhozer wants Lopez to drop back; the Bucks are willing to give bigs open long range jumpers.

This is where Serge Ibaka comes in. He sets big screens. He can shoot. He has just enough off the bounce verve to take advantage of space if he’s close to the basket.

If he’s hitting his shots, Serge Ibaka is the closest thing to Brook Lopez kryptonite, this side of KD at centre.

You can see how a plus-shooting big like Ibaka creates all sorts of problems for Lopez.

That first shot isn’t even long range, Ibaka almost has a foot in the paint, but Lopez has to get so deep to deal with the threat of a VanVleet drive that it’s there for Serge.

The second one is the classic pick and pop the Raps run all the time with Serge. It’s a good shot most of the time, but against the slow-footed Lopez it’s basically a practice shot.

And it’s not just when Serge is the trigger man that Lopez is exposed.

Lopez has no chance to get anywhere near this play. It’s up to Kawhi’s man to fight through the Ibaka screen, and then recover to contest the shot. Good luck.

You can bet in the post-season, Lopez is going to be put through the pick and roll ringer by whomever Milwaukee plays.

The Bucks tried for a period to hide Lopez on Danny Green, reasoning Green’s screens wouldn’t create as much daylight for the Raps trigger-men, but all that did was allow Ibaka to attack the much smaller Malcolm Brogdon in the post (Brogdon put up more fight than you’d think — he’s a smart, physical defender who has enough mean in him to survive down low).

If the Raps can force Lopez off the floor, then everything changes for the Bucks. The Raps can put an extra body in the lane to force Giannis into more longer-range jumpers, and while they lose the most obvious plan of attack when they have the ball, they should be able to shoot a high percentage at the rim, and pressure Milwaukee on the boards.

Thon Maker might have the requisite size and speed to take over defensively, but even Raptor-Killer Thon isn’t going to hit 38% on nine-threes (at least I pray to the basketball Gods he isn’t).

Milwaukee’s best option might be to try Ersan Ilyasova — he’s the same size as Ibaka and is a career 36.5% shooter. But, Ilyasova hasn’t hit that mark in four seasons — and has never shot the volume, or difficulty of threes Lopez takes (Brook shoots step-backs, for pete’s sake). He’s also not the same defender in the post or rebounder.

It may end up that Lopez sees the floor mostly against Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas can’t cover the ground defensively, and while he’s an accurate shooter, he takes a long time to load up, giving Lopez the opportunity to challenge.

That’s where Siakam could come in again. If JV isn’t feasting on Brook on the other end to the degree needed to make the match-up even, the Raps could stagger Ibaka and Siakam at the five position, and play more of Leonard and Anunoby at the four. They wouldn’t be giving up too much size — especially if Giannis was out of the game, and Siakam, while not the same mid-range threat as Serge, has become dangerous enough from beyond the arc that he could punish Lopez in a similar way.

Any which way, it looks like Serge Ibaka could be the key to unlocking the Bucks. Which might give Toronto fans one heck of a prize to mount on their wall: A trip to the NBA finals.