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Player Review: Serge Ibaka’s resurgence key to Raptors’ success

A new coach, a new role, and a slight tweak to his game has brought Serge Ibaka closer to the rim, off the bench, and to the best version of himself.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It was a busy summer for the Toronto Raptors in 2018. Fresh off the second season in which they were swept by LeBron James and company, as well as the firing of long-time coach Dwane Casey, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that no one on Toronto would be considered untouchable in trade talks in the offseason. The Raptors could go in many different directions, but it looked like Serge Ibaka was the expected candidate to follow Casey in leaving Toronto. After a disastrous postseason in which he averaged 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds on 39.3 percent from the field and 30 percent from three against Cleveland in the second round, it was all but certain Serge’s best days were behind him.

In Ibaka’s first eight seasons, he had always started alongside another big. His game had to drastically change to keep up with the league’s direction of pace and space. That meant big men that could keep up with perimeter players as well as shoot it well from deep. Against squads like Cleveland however, he could never keep up playing alongside Jonas Valanciunas. Defensively, he would be matched up against perimeter players like Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, or JR Smith. While he could guard them in spurts, it hurt his ability to by closer to rim to contest and block shots. Offensively, he would be camped out in the corner or on the perimeter. He was needed as a perimeter shooter to help with offensive spacing, giving DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas space to operate. His best game in the series against Cleveland was Game 3, in which he played off the bench as the lone big in the lineup. He finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks.

Back to the Old

After a month-long search for Casey’s successor ended with the promotion of assistant Nick Nurse, things changed. When the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto and shipped off DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl in the opposite direction, things really changed. The absence left at the back-up five position with the trade of Poeltl and the emergence of Pascal Siakam meant a new role for Ibaka as the lone big in a fluid, match up driven, lineup. Long story short, Serge Ibaka flourished.

He played in 74 games – in which he started 51 of them – and averaged 15 points and 8.1 rebounds in 27 minutes per game. It was his most productive season since the 2013-14 season with Oklahoma City in which he averaged a career-high 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He also lowered his three-point attempts from 3.9 to 2.3 per game, his lowest since 2013-14. He developed a deadly pick-and-pop/roll game with Kyle Lowry, opting to take the free throw line jumpshot rather than stepping out to the three. Being the lone big in the lineup also brought Ibaka closer to the rim where he could block and alter shots.

Taken altogether, Ibaka had some monster games. Against the Lakers for example, he started 14-of-14 from the field and finished 15-of-17 for 34 points. When Jonas Valanciunas was out with injury until he was traded for Marc Gasol, Serge stepped up and continued his great play against starting calibre players.

Ibaka’s play in the postseason was a lot less consistent. He often struggled to contain bigger match-ups in the post. In Game 3 against Orlando, Nikola Vucevic had his best game of the series when Gasol was off the floor due to foul trouble. Defensively against Philadelphia, he struggled mightily with Joel Embiid. He had his moments, including during the pivotal Game 7 in which he went for 17 points on 6-of-10 from the field, which included some big-time (and surprising) threes.

When it mattered most, in the Finals, Serge played his best ball of the postseason. After a shaky start in Game 3, he took control defensively and had six blocks. In Game 4, he came in and took control offensively this time. He scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including this big two-way play.

A New Legacy

Two weeks before this season began, Serge Ibaka invited his teammates Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Delon Wright onto his cooking show How Hungry Are You? They joked, ate some brains, and talked about the upcoming season. Who knew before this season started we would get to see Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry eat beef penis and testicles on camera, Siakam make an enormous leap into being named the Most Improved Player, the trade for Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet go supernova in the Finals, and the Raptors winning an NBA championship?

We hoped the team would bounce back, but few of us thought it would be to this magnitude. However, without Serge’s resurgence, Toronto would not be in the position they are in today as champions. His heroics in Game 7 against Philadelphia, in which he hit three of the team’s seven 3s on the night, gave Kawhi the help he needed to just get into the position to make his legendary 4-bounce shot. Ibaka’s play during the season, especially during Valanciunas’ absence, helped Toronto do better than just tread water.

A lot could be said about how Toronto won their title but when we look at it 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ll only remember this team as the best. At last, Serge could add one more name in his long list of A.K.As — champion.