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What Didn’t Suck: Serge Ibaka inspires a third quarter comeback vs. Houston

Serge Ibaka is in many ways the heart of this year’s Raptors. He proved it again on Tuesday vs. Houston.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Raptors are good as hell. Even when they lose the odd game here or there, it will be important to not lose sight of that. This is the most talented team ever assembled in Toronto, and it won’t last forever. So rather than getting hung up on the things the Raptors do poorly, this column is designed to appreciate the silver linings even when the score line doesn’t favour the good guys. There are only so many games in a season — why not enjoy all 82?

This is What Didn’t Suck about the Raptors’ 107-95 loss to the Rockets on Tuesday.

*****

The real risk Toronto’s front office took when making the Kawhi Leonard trade was not an on-court one. Sure, Leonard’s health status was a tad murky, and the trade thrust a whole whack of pressure upon the team to make the most of the 2018-19 season, but the basketball of it all was never really up for debate. Leonard’s a better version of DeMar DeRozan on offense, and we don’t need to rub it in again by talking about the defensive side of things.

No, what was really put in jeopardy (get well, Alex) when the deal crossed the wire that late July morning was the aura around the team. A hella cool franchise icon was suddenly gone, a huge slice of the Raptors’ likeability pie traded in for flavourless win-now vitamins, and the keys to the franchise left in the hands of a mute and a famously surly grump. For the coming season to truly be enjoyable beneath the weight of expectations and urgency, someone was going to have to step up to fill the team’s charisma quotient.

Who the DeRozan vacuum-filler ended up being, may be the stunner of the season.

It’s high time Serge Ibaka was officially branded as the most likable person on the Raptors. The competition is stiff, yes. Kyle Lowry is a lot of people’s favourite Raptor given his longevity, success and general Over Everything-ness. And he is certainly likeable, in a wise-yet-curmudgeonly grandfather who also takes charges and drains threes sort of way. Pascal Siakam is a delight, too! The Raptors aren’t entirely devoid of characters you want to root for in the post-DeRozan era.

But with the work he’s put in this season, punctuated by his production before (see above) and during Tuesday night’s loss to Houston, Serge Ibaka has proven to be the undisputed spirit guide of this Raptors team — a truly remarkable feat just months after the missing person’s case Serge was the subject of last spring.

Ibaka’s been the progenitor of so much Raptors joy this season. It all began with his acceptance of an on-and-off starters gig at a new position, freeing the team to weaponize its versatility, and opening a lane wherein Siakam could go nuts with his MIP case. Outside the gym, Ibaka’s assumed the role of team’s handsome Nonna — he cooks for the team, is dazzled by cold weather, and has been the MVP of the Kawhi recruitment effort. Within two weeks of Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin each being dropped into the Raptors’ high-stakes equation, they were both at Serge’s place, taking part in the YouTube sensation that’s become something of a rite of passage for those within the team.

Release the damn episodes, Serge.

Tuesday night’s game against Houston — and in particular the third quarter — marked what may have been the on-court high point of Ibaka’s renaissance this season. After a listless first half cast a spooky quiet upon the Toronto home crowd, Ibaka almost single-handedly inspired one of the best quarters the Raps have played all year; a 34-14, scoreboard flipping third frame surge from 18-points down that left Scotiabank Arena in a frenzy usually reserved for spring.

Peppered in between routine beckons to the crowd were six points, five boards and four third quarter blocks off the hands of Ibaka, whose 2011-ish energy on defense and head-knocking on the glass seemed to electroshock Toronto out of its group nap.

James Harden is a nearly impossible defensive assignment. You can do everything right — stay grounded and in position, force it from his hands and rotate like keeners — and he’ll still snap your back like a twig with that goddamn step-back. Toronto at least avoided death by Beard until the fourth quarter on Tuesday, which is actually kind of an accomplishment; Ibaka was central to the team delaying its doom so astutely.

With Ibaka in his face on both ends, Harden played like butt — or at least shot like it — in the third quarter on Tuesday. Last year’s MVP went 1-of-7 from the field over those 12 minutes. Ibaka had a direct hand in four of his six misses, and physically got a direct hand on one of them.

Toronto threw a few different strategies in Harden’s face as they successfully kicked his inevitable onslaught down the road, and none of them would have worked without Ibaka’s turn as a defensive chameleon.

A lot of Toronto’s plan against Harden was to throw their best perimeter defenders at him, have them run his ass off the three-point line, and funnel him towards Ibaka, looming near the rim. It all falls apart if Ibaka doesn’t carefully plot his steps in and out of the paint and time his lunges toward Harden perfectly.

When the Raptors opted to jack up the pressure on Harden, Ibaka was up to that, too, using his length to help choke off Houston’s offense at the source. In a couple instances, both of those tactics were used in the same possession, presumably as a way of making my life as a half-assed screen-grabber that much easier.

Raps internet folks seemed a little ticked off when the word came down that Ibaka, not Gasol, would be starting the Rockets game. It’s true that Gasol is the better player, and should probably start most games with real stakes. But it’s not as though Ibaka has earned himself a benching at any point this season. In the interest of rewarding strong play and treating Ibaka like a human being with feelings, it’s not crazy for Nurse to want to throw him a few starts here and there at the expense of slightly lowering the team’s ceiling in these regular season games that don’t really matter.

As it turns out, starting Ibaka was absolutely the right thing to do against Houston, anyway. In 29 minutes on Tuesday, the team’s most-used starting five posted a 114.5 / 86.8 / +27.8 efficiency slash line. Toronto won those minutes by 17 points; it lost the remaining 19 minutes by 29.

Ibaka and the gang were so good in the third, in fact, that it may have derailed the Raptors’ ability to sustain and hold on to the lead. Nurse rode the starters’ wave so long that it kinda threw a wrench into his usual rotation plan.

“The hardest part I think is that your groups rolling so much, and you just don’t wanna disturb that as a coach a lot of times,” said Nurse after the loss. “You just don’t wanna disturb it, more than anything. And it get’s hard.”

“You get down to that three-minute mark and you haven’t made any subs yet — that mean’s you’re making a whole bunch here pretty soon, right?”

Those subs did eventually come in the dying minutes of the third, and with them came the Rockets’ eventual run to take back the lead and never look back. If you want to quibble with the complexion of the lineups Nurse went with after the starters’ prolonged stint, that’s fine. There’s certainly room to improve for him when it comes to how he staggers his best players throughout the game. But we’re not here to piss and moan about that stuff! We an save that for a Reynolds column or something.

Ibaka’s game of 10 points, 15 boards, two assists, five blocks and several moments of crowd-rallying theatrics — a performance so good and so game-turning that it messed up the Raptors’ fourth quarter game plan — is what we’re here to appreciate. It’s not his fault the Lin-Powell-McCaw trio of despair can’t hold leads, nor is it on him when Nurse decides it’s a good idea to run all three of those guys out there together. Free Malcolm Miller, baby.

How the back third of the rotation takes shape in the final month of the season remains to be seen. But what is not in question is Ibaka, who against Houston proved once again why he is in many ways the emotional core of these Raptors, capable of swinging the mood with a single tough defensive board or thumbs down gesture after a block. His role may be fluid, but against all preseason expectations, Ibaka’s energy has become a pillar, his joie de vivre an indispensable asset in this heavy slog of a season.

Not bad for a guy whose career was pronounced dead just 10 months ago.