Two questions dominated the discourse heading into the Raptors’ Wednesday night date with the Indiana Pacers. The first: would the second-seed Raptors feel compelled to beef up the roster ahead of Thursdays trade deadline? And just as important: what about scarfs?
In a roundabout way, you could say the second query helped inform the ultimate answer to the first. The Raptors stood pat at today’s trade deadline. After the week theoretical trade chips Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby have had on and off the court, that’s a relief.
Between OG’s enthralling appearance on Ibaka’s fandom-enriching fashion show, the ensuing scarf wars that went down on the pregame runway, and the pair’s very different but very meaningful contributions to one of the Raptors’ most kick ass wins of the year, Ibaka and Anunoby proved that the mix of this Raptors team was just about flawless well before Thursday’s 3pm buzzer.
Serge Ibaka probably doesn’t get enough credit for the way he’s broadened the horizons of what being a fan of a team can and should be about. Between ‘How Hungry Are You?’ and ‘Avec Classe,’ Ibaka’s opened up his Raps teammates and put their personalities on display in way that even the best beat reporters can’t quite achieve. Guys are always going to be more open and engaging when a bond already exists with their interviewer, and Ibaka’s pounced on that fact to add an entirely new, exclusive layer to the Raptors fan experience, one that few if any fan bases have access to. The value of Serge’s spon-con will never be seen on the floor or in the numbers, and management might not give a damn about it in the big picture, but the cost of a deal sending him away would be so much more than wins and/or losses. Learning the degree to which OG is a hilarious shit-disturbing troll is a hell of a lot more important than a marginal roster upgrade.
As it turns out, both sides of the neckwear feud are damn good at the basketball thing, too.
Serge and OG channeled their big scarf energy in different ways on Wednesday, with Serge’s imprint on the game being far more profound. He hit the game-winning three with Domantas Sabonis closing out hard (illegally?), and poured in 30 points on 13-of-21 shooting. As has been the case often over the last two years, Ibaka’s mix of popping mid-rangers, dunks and around-the-hoop floaters were like heavy blanket for the Raptors when things otherwise ran cold.
He also dished some sweet ass dimes, part of an upward trend in his play making that’s seen his greatest deficiency turn into if not an outright strength, at least a useful tool he can bust out from time to time. Both a slick big-to-big find and this short-roll bouncer got Pascal Siakam two of his easiest buckets of the night in crunch time.
Nick Nurse commented on Ibaka’s wholesale late-career growth after the game.
“He takes the time to work on his ball-handling and his passing and I think the just the reps over and over has given him the time to see things better,” Nurse said.
“You guys know how I rave about Serge’s work ethic on the off days and stuff and I just, I give him all the credit in the world. He’s really serious about continuing to improve. He knows his role, he understands our offence and how he can fit in it, he knew what he had to to do get a little bit better with our offence and as a teammate and he’s done that thing.”
Nurse also found a little poetry in it being Ibaka who canned the game-winning triple — something of an exclamation point on his bounce-back, 39-percent season from outside.
“To me it’s like super fitting that he hit that shot because he’s tweaked it a little bit and worked on it and tonight was the first night in a long time where he was coming up short a little bit, one after another. We talked about it at a time out and said, ‘Finish one.’”
Ibaka got the post-game interview, and the public consensus seemed to dub him as the true Scarf Daddy based on his and OG’s pregame fits. But despite a mum 0-3-0 line and a crunch-time benching in lieu of Terence Davis, Anunoby was a notable part of the comeback effort — particularly during a stretch where foul trouble forced Ibaka to take a seat in the third.
Teetering on the the edge of a Pacers blowout, Ibaka’s fourth foul triggered a Nurse brain genius moment. With noted large people Sabonis and Myles Turner on the floor for Indy, Nurse went nuclear, going small with Anunoby and Siakam at the four and five. Toronto won the remainder of the quarter 23-11, trimming a 16-point deficit down to four. As Nurse noted, even without scoring, that lineup doesn’t jive without OG.
“I thought he played great in the second half, I thought he was really physical and was guarding. We had to put him on Sabonis some and he was forcing catches out further away from the post and he was working out there,” said Nurse, noting that it was Davis’ slightly more dangerous three-point stroke that tilted the scales the rookie’s way in crunch time, though it was a tough call.
“I thought OG played hard and really tough in the second half. I just about put him in because I thought his defence was worthy of going back in but the offensive spacing was really what I was concerned about tonight.”
Anunoby and Ibaka have been two of the steadiest pieces in a season of injury-induced upheaval. The things they do — team and solo defense, bombing treys, secondary play making, sliding between positions as the Raptors toggle between small, normal and huge — these are the kinds of things teams fall over themselves to acquire at the deadline. Shit, they go bananas to get Morris brothers. Jae Crowders and other not-so well-rounded fringe pieces, none of which host their own delightful YouTube series.
Ibaka and Anunoby aren’t just sentimental, charismatic figures with title run pixie dust dotting their ample shoulders. They’re ideal role players, perfectly tailored to the playoff run the Raptors hope to make. Dealing either in some sort of consolidation attempt seemed to be a popular idea among Raps likers in the lead-up to the deadline. A star addition would have been cool, but there was no toy on the market so shiny that shipping off two players so charming off the court and useful on it would have been justifiable.
Sure, maybe without a significant upgrade the Raptors’ ceiling caps out somewhere between a quick conference finals exit and a drawn-out noble one. Thing is, that Bucks-topping addition probably wasn’t out there anyway. These Raptors, at 37-14, with a growing ledger of incredible victories and off-the-charts likability scores have earned the right to make this title defense without the help of an outside hired gun. It may not end in a title, but there will be scarfs.