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Serge Ibaka helped save the Raptors in Game 7 — but the team isn’t done needing him yet

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Serge Ibaka has his Raptors moment now, thanks to his play in Game 7 against the Sixers. How much it is remembered might depend on how he performs against Toronto’s next foe, the Milwaukee Bucks.

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Contrary to popular memory, there was another noteworthy shot hit by a Raptor in Game 7 against the Sixers. It wasn’t a buzzer-beater; it’s not the best moment in the history of the franchise; it didn’t even bounce on the rim twice, let alone four times. Hell, neither the local nor national broadcasts even captured the real Kodak moment of the play in a replay.

But Serge Ibaka’s three over Ben Simmons with 9:38 to go in the fourth quarter — his third triple on a night where the Raptors connected just seven times from long range — was as much a table-setter for Kawhi Leonard’s historic Plinko jackpot as any play in the first 47 minutes and 56 seconds of action on Sunday night.

Game 7 was about sludge and grime and angst. Through the muck, Ibaka served up one of just a handful of instances of sublime beauty viewers were treated to all night.

How there are not more wallpaper-worthy images of Ibaka striking this pose floating about is perhaps the only disappointment in the wake of the franchise’s greatest ever win.

Courtesy Sportsnet

Toronto does not win Game 7 without Ibaka’s work over 29 minutes. With Philly’s team-wide bout of gigantism rendering Norman Powell unplayable in the series’ most important game, and Danny Green’s series-long swoon threatening the health of Toronto’s typically awesome starters, Ibaka was bumped up to absolutely essential status within the Raptors’ hierarchy.

Seventeen points, eight rebounds (four offensive), three assists (?!), and the team’s only 50-plus percent shooting line of the night later, and the loose and goofy engineer of these Raptors’ most endearing off-court moments is now an eternal Toronto folk hero for entirely on-court reasons.

“He was obviously really big out there,” said coach Nick Nurse after the game. “He had a couple of offensive put-backs, he rebounded, he was rim protecting — I’m not sure if he blocked any shots or not but he was maybe altering a few — and he grabbed a few rebounds.”

“And he was confident on offense, I thought,” Nurse went on. “There was a stretch there where he was maybe the second most confident guy out there behind Kawhi, it’d get kicked out to him and he was just pulling it or he was flying inside, getting a dump off and he was finding a way to get it in. It was big.”

Ibaka’s series had been, let’s call it, uneven, prior to setting his 2019 playoff scoring high in Game 7. Through three games he had been essentially unplayable, lumped in with Powell and VanVleet among the rarefied group of reserves to have been punked by the Sixers supremely shitty bench. Game 4 brought Ibaka back from the dead, as Nurse more acutely matched Marc Gasol with Joel Embiid, and busted out the Team Spain front court for its first extended run of the series. Ibaka’s Game 5 was okay, his Game 6 as rough as the rest of the team’s, but the the through-line pre-Game 7 was his largely ineffectual play on the scoring side of things. Before to going 3-of-5 on triples in Sunday’s series-decider, Ibaka had chucked a goose egg (0-of-10) from downtown dating back to Game 4 against Orlando.

“Oh man, I wanted it so bad. I wanted it so much,” said an elated Ibaka after finally finding his stroke in Game 7. “After the last Game 6, and we lost and I came back, only thing my mind was thinking about was how to make my shots, how to make those open shots for us to be successful. I already know Kawhi was gonna be Kawhi, always gonna play D, but my jumper — I have to make those shots and then grab a couple of rebounds. The last two games after the Game 6, I was talking to myself, I was keep talking to my friends, I have to make these shots. I have to. After tonight, I was able to make those open shots.”

Shots, as you may expect considering it was, um, a game of basketball, were the determining factor in Game 7. To be a little more precise, though, it was all about shot attempts.

Toronto got outgunned by five percentage points from the field overall; Philly hit on 33.3 percent of its threes to Toronto’s bricktastic 23.3; and the Sixers got to the line 11 more times than the Raptors on the night. On a night where both teams shot like shit, Philadelphia barely emitted a stench compared to what the Raptors were giving off. Do all the analysis and munch down all the tape of defensive coverages and offensive execution that you want, but the story of Game 7 — the reason Leonard even had a chance to shoot for the win at the final buzzer — was that the Raptors had 89 looks at the basket to the Sixers’ 65. Ibaka’s fingerprints are all over that hilarious disparity.

“We talked about the size being an issue for us, I liked the look of that lineup,” said Nurse of the super-sized group he entrusted to save his team’s season, wherein Leonard was the shooting guard next to Toronto’s three rotation bigs.

“Kyle as kind of the floor general out there and then a bunch of big guys… it didn’t seem to cause us too many problems on the defensive end especially.”

That look’s ability to not just survive, but actively snuff out the Sixers’ half-court offense for large swaths of the game, opened up the path for the Raptors to skew the shot attempt scale so extremely, and stomp Philly at its own game.

Brett Brown’s team had done more damage than anyone on the offensive glass in this year’s playoffs. Going into Game 7, 33.2 percent of all Philly misses were retrieved by a Sixer; Toronto’s 21.5 offensive rebounding rate before Sunday ranked them 15th among all playoff teams ahead of only Indiana. You’d be forgiven, then, for being taking fully aback by the Raptors’ complete obliteration of Philly on the glass in Game 7. Toronto grabbed 16 offensive boards to Philly’s five, and were at their crashiest with Ibaka on the court.

“I just gave everything. Everything, man,” said Ibaka, who collected four of his own team’s misses and oversaw a 36.7 offensive rebounding rate for the team when he was on the court. “I knew tonight’s game was are you in or are you out? I know that if you go out tonight you go home. There’s no second chance or next opportunity. I already tried to do my best I can to be aggressive.”

“We had a lot of offensive rebounds, I mean there were a lot to get, high volume of shots available to offensive rebound tonight,” Nurse said. “Again, I thought there was some great determination there, I thought even when they did secure them it was a hard defensive rebound and that’s a sign of how hard you’re team is playing.”

Ibaka, known for his lapses in attentiveness and zip, is gonna have to carry the desperation with which he played in Game 7 to the Eastern Conference Finals — a series it feels gross to talk about when there are still unseen angles of the four-bouncer to be consumed. The reality of the Bucks will soon be unavoidable, though. Toronto won the Sixers series mostly on gumption and nuts, and rarely with more than four or five guys clicking on any given night. Milwaukee is too deep, too structured, and too Giannis for that style of winning to work with the Finals on the line. And if the regular season is any indication — which, in fairness, it may not be when it comes to this match-up — Ibaka is going to figure in centrally whenever he sees the floor.

No Eastern Conference opponent goaded the Raptors into a more Ibaka-centric offense than the Bucks this year. If Mike Budenholzer’s team was going to die against the Raps, it was going to do so under the hail of a thousand Ibaka 18-footers; his 22.5 points a game against Milwaukee were scored very much by design. He posted a 56.4 true shooting mark against the Bucks this year, and will need to at least match that while channelling his Game 7 aggression whenever he sees the court, especially if the match-up sees him assume his regular back-up centre/pick-and-pop role in a more traditional Raptors rotation.

On defense, Ibaka will surely be one of the guys who sees time on Giannis. If the Raptors have one edge over most teams in the challenge of slowing Antetokounmpo down, it’s that they have more dudes who are at least properly sized for the job. Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Gasol, Leonard, and with any luck, OG Anunoby, are all going to be part of the probably futile attempt to slow down the freight train. A lively and engaged Ibaka may stand the best chance of anyone Toronto has to offer considering his size and rim protection chops.

Ibaka now has his indelible Raptors moment in the form of that impossibly swagful three in the early stages of Sunday’s fourth quarter. Much like Leonard, the Ibaka era is now an unquestioned success, albeit with a few more nadirs woven in than the age of Kawhi. Ibaka will forever be linked to what went down in Game 7 against the Sixers, but the degree to which he is romanticized years from now is still undetermined.

On what was for a short time the most memorable shot of Game 7, Ibaka quite literally put his best foot forward. He’ll need to stay leaning on it against the Bucks for the Raptors to do the same.