Play their starters mostly even, and the Toronto Raptors should be okay. That’s how the thinking went entering a series with the Washington Wizards, where the two teams have four All-Stars in the backcourt between them. With the Raptors’ bench as good as it’s been and the Wizards notably thin outside of their top seven, hat should have been a good enough formula.
Through two games, it’s been the Raptors’ other three starters delivering the knockout difference. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been good-to-excellent, but the Raptors’ bench has sputtered mightily by its own lofty standards. Washington has received a massive spark from Mike Scott and got a strong Game 2 contribution from Ty Lawson. The Wizards’ depth has unexpectedly helped them counterpunch in both losses, and while that can be expected to swing back Toronto’s way over the course of the series, it’s shifted a heavier burden to Toronto’s starters.
They’ve delivered, perhaps nobody more so than Serge Ibaka.
The Raptors’ starters have played 37 minutes together over two games, posting a plus-24.7 net rating and sending Wizards head coach Scott Brooks searching for answers in the form of potential lineup changes. Each starter has a net rating of 17.8 or better in all of their minutes, and Ibaka trails only Jonas Valanciunas and give Golden State Warriors league-wide so far in the postseason with a plus-24.3 number. Really, you can pick your Raptors starter (or C.J. Miles, or Delon Wright) and write glowingly about the job they’ve done.
Ibaka winning his battle with Markieff Morris as decisively as he has is important. He’s ostensibly the Raptors No. 3 after Lowry and DeRozan, and he should outplay Morris. But Ibaka had an up-and-down season, and while there was plenty of room for optimism that he’d turn it around at the right time – if anyone on the team knew how to prepare themselves to peak for a long postseason run, it’s the veteran with 100-plus games of playoff experience – it wasn’t a given. Ibaka heated up in the final weeks of the regular season, and he’s been a wholly different player altogether in playoff games.
As Washington loads up to get the ball out of the hands of the guards, Ibaka is punishing them. He’s knocking down the usual pick-and-pop jumpers that have long-defined his game, sure. He’s also putting the ball on the floor, attacking wild closeouts with his developing in-between game and unleashing floaters and runners against a lack of rim protection. He’s calmly making reads in the 4-on-3 underneath traps, trying to find cutters in a way that hasn’t always been there for him. The culture reset was slower to set in for Ibaka more than any other Raptor, as his offensive career to that point had involved little dribbling and mostly catch-and-shoot and post-up opportunities, and Ibaka’s grown into a comfort zone with the extra responsibility at exactly the right time. He’s touchin
In Game 1, Ibaka posted a 23-and-12 double-double and was maybe the best two-way Raptor on the floor. He was only 4-of-11 for 10 points in Game 2, and still he had a pronounced impact on the game. All told, he’s scored 33 points on 25 possessions in 64 minutes, grabbing 21 rebounds and dishing three assists. When Ibaka shares the court with Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors are scoring 127.4 points per-100 possessions, and that’s even higher in minutes he shares the court with Valanciunas.
On the surface, it looked like Morris matched him in Game 1. Morris had 22 points with 11 rebounds and six assists and looked every bit the part of third option in his own right. Except Morris did almost all of his damage while separated from Ibaka, and Ibaka cooled when away from Morris – they matched stat lines, but Ibaka decisively won their minutes against each other. That continued in Game 2, and while this sort of thing can be noisy, the matchup data between the two is striking
Ibaka has roasted Morris, and it’s been a big part of why Washington has moved away from their starting lineup so quickly. The matchup between Ibaka and Mike Scott hasn’t gone nearly as far in Toronto’s favor, and while Scott’s become a decent defender, it’s unclear that the Wizards downsizing, as they’ve hinted at, is the right move – not only would Valanciunas threaten to feast on the glass (the Raptors have grabbed 60.5 percent of rebounds when Ibaka and Valanciunas share the floor and 57.5 percent when Washington plays neither of their centers), Ibaka can just slide to center if the spacing is really hurting Toronto’s defense. Ibaka spent an estimated 26 percent of his possessions guarding a center this year, and the Raptors outscored opponents by 11.9 points per-100 possessions in 279 minutes with Ibaka at center. In this series, Toronto’s won their six minutes with Ibaka at center by 14. Toronto doesn’t need to go to that given that the size advantage should outweigh any loss on the defensive end, but it’s great that it’s been there, and been successful.
Defensively, Ibaka’s been a presence wherever he is. Obviously, his biggest weapon is his shot-blocking, which he can unleash more while around the rim, and the Raptors have let him help off of his cover minimally to provide resistance on John Wall and Bradley Beal. The gameplan right now is to stay home on shooters and dictates as such. Still, the Raptors get Ibaka involved plenty, either as a defender when Morris or Scott screen or by pre-switching the frontcourt positions so Ibaka is guarding more of Wall’s pick-and-rolls (there has been no shortage of miscommunication on these pre-switches over the course of the season, the cost for a useful tool when utilized properly). Toronto’s starters have actually been quite stingy defensively (100.2 defensive rating in the series) and deserve the chance to continue asserting themselves against whatever look Washington may throw at them.
The credit is shared across all five players for the success of the starting unit so far. DeRozan had an otherworldly Game 2, Lowry has been in full KLOE mode, Valanciunas may have sent Marcin Gortat to pasture, and OG Anunoby has stepped into the moment. Ibaka’s play has always stood out as a big swing factor, the one matchup among the starting five that could project to go either way game-to-game in this series. Through two, he’s turned in some of his best play as a Raptor. It’s good timing, and with plenty of extra rest built into this series’ schedule, there’s ample room for optimism it continues.