48-20; Ibaka out three games for missing three punches
“There’s 82 games and for me these are just practices,” Leonard told reporters after hitting a game-winning shot against the Portland Trail Blazers recently, via TSN’s Josh Lewenberg. “And playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
When the playoffs arrive, there will be questions about which teams can take it to another level. Sometimes this is about playing stars heavier minutes, shrinking the rotation and the value of postseason experience. For teams like Warriors, Celtics and Raptors, it is also about focus. You don’t want to be so amped up that you’re trying too hard or overthinking, but you need to be stimulated. As Honnold said, you need consequences. Kerr, borrowing from Gregg Popovich, likes to talk about having “appropriate fear” — too much fear can be paralyzing, but without any, you can get sloppy.
In this sense, it is not helpful to think of switch-flipping teams in terms of insulting fans, disrespecting the game or being apathetic. Toronto coach Nick Nurse recently said that, now that he’s in charge of an NBA team, “I don’t really feel the momentum/emotional swings up and down” the way he used to, via the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith. His Raptors lost to the Magic recently, but he knows the Warriors did, too. On Sunday, Toronto played one of its best games of the season, beating the Miami Heat by 21 points. The next day, it played one of its worst, losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers by 25.
Nurse told reporters that the Cavs were “really up for the game” and the Raptors didn’t match their energy. He didn’t call out his team for dishonoring the basketball gods, only sounding a bit disappointed that they gave up so many open shots. A month from now, the regular season will be over and none of these contenders will have to play teams like Cleveland anymore. Few will remember these losses then, and it is hard to imagine that energy will be an issue.
The biggest difference is that Leonard is creating more of his own offence this season. According to NBA.com, he is averaging 4.3 isolation points per game with the Raptors. Not only is that way up from the 2.1 he averaged in 2015-16 and the 2.7 he averaged in 2016-17, it’s tied with DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James for the fourth-highest mark in the entire league this season.
The only players ahead of them? James Harden, Chris Paul and John Wall, the latter of whom hasn’t played since late December.
Leonard isn’t quite as dominant as Harden in isolation, but he still ranks in the 87th percentile with an average of 1.07 points per possession. He’s been practically automatic from midrange this season and he’s been getting to the free throw line at a solid rate while rarely turning the ball over.
Leonard’s ability to create his own shot against almost any defender has helped the Raptors the most in crunch time. In addition to being one of the league leaders in clutch scoring this season, Leonard has already made seven shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter and overtime, the most in the league.
A lot of those baskets have come in similar fashion, with Leonard putting his defender on an island and using his size to shoot over them.
Landing a punch was, presumably, the intent in all three cases. Unless, of course, it wasn’t.
“Quite frankly, I think everyone has it all wrong with Serge Ibaka and missing these punches,” said Sebastian Suave, a Toronto-based professional wrestler with the Smash Wrestling promotion. “Look, Serge Ibaka has thrown three punches while he’s played for Toronto. I don’t even think he’s trying to land them. He’s embracing Toronto by throwing what we call a Canadian warning shot. It’s a punch in the general vicinity to let him know you’re serious, but much quieter and easier than firing a shotgun into the air.
“Look, this dude throws down dunks all day. If he wanted you unconscious, he would windmill punch your face in a downward motion. Being a wrestler, I know that’s a devastating maneuver, and a devastating maneuver requires a nickname like all finishing moves do. I call it the Slam Chump — off the top (rope), double windmill. ‘By God almighty, he hit him with the slam chump. That man has a family.’ That’s my professional opinion there.”
Assuming he wanted to hit all three men, there is a solid reason why Ibaka has yet to squarely connect.
“I’m always so shocked when elite athletes fight like little defenceless newborn antelope fawns in their first three hours of life,” former mixed martial arts competitor and current YouTube analyst, Robin Black wrote in an email. “Yikes. This gentleman just cannot comfortably express a punch.”
“He should be better than he is, I’ll give you that much,” veteran boxing writer Wallace Matthews said on Tuesday. “He has good, long arms. He seems to have a lot of leverage. It looks like he could be a dangerous fighter if someone would teach him. Clearly he’s very unschooled and has no idea what the hell he’s doing. The reason he doesn’t hit anybody is he pulls his head back when he punches. He doesn’t step in. Like a lot of guys who have never been fighters, he is clearly more concerned with self-preservation than with doing real damage.”
“All I can say,” added Russ Anber, the president and CEO of Rival Boxing Gear, as well as a longtime trainer, cutman and television analyst, “is he is no worse than anyone else who doesn’t know how to throw a punch.”
Could there be any long-term implications or worries for Raptors fans?
More than one colleague have suggested that Ibaka’s reaction — and subsequent expected suspension — is foreboding and raises potential issues come playoff time. “Could his temper become a liability in the playoffs?” read one email I received this morning.
I don’t buy it.
Basketball can be an emotional sport, and, yes, those emotions are amplified come playoff time. But I’ll give credit to a veteran with over 100 post-season games to recognize the risk of turning into a Rock’em Sock’em figurine in the midst of a crucial playoff series.
This may have sped up the inevitable as well, and expedited Gasol’s journey to the Raptors’ starting lineup on a permanent basis heading into the playoffs.
Look, should Ibaka have kept his cool? Sure.
Is it a problem that he acted on his impulses and went after Chriss? Not really. (Disclaimer: I watched one short clip of A&E’s nutso reality show 60 Days In on YouTube recently, and now the site has been suggesting a bunch of prison documentaries to me, which I’ve readily consumed. In the process I’ve learned that if someone disrespects you in that environment, even in a minor way as Chriss did with Ibaka, you have to fight, lest you want your tater-tots stolen at breakfast the next day and every day thereafter. Rules are rules. The basketball court is no prison, obviously, but there is a code of sorts between the sidelines that doesn’t exist in the civilian world. It doesn’t excuse Ibaka going for Chriss’ neck at first, mind you. That’s stepping too far.)
Given the timing of the season, and the context of the game, Ibaka’s rage-out and impending penalty isn’t a big deal. He should have known better, no question, but in the midst of a lifeless blowout against arguably the NBA’s worst team, at least one Raptor showed some fight.
All in all, it was not the best game of the year for the Raptors — as we’ve covered here and here. They lost to the Cavaliers, a team they should have wrecked, with both Kyle Lowry and Danny Green sustaining minor annoying injuries. Now they’ll have to play without Ibaka against the Lakers (on Thursday), their possible first round opponent the Pistons (on Sunday), and the Knicks (in a back-to-back on Monday). Just not great, Bob, all around.
Still, this ultimately won’t hurt Toronto record-wise, as they’re remain very much locked into second place. On the other hand, good lord, the stink off this game will be hard to shake off. Even if, as Blake Murphy helpfully figured out, there are some tax savings to be had for the Raptors.
Ibaka’s absence will make a glaring a hole in the Toronto roster that has to be filled some time this week.
The Raptors are one player down from the league-mandated minimum number of players with NBA contracts and the has to be addressed before the end of the week.
It’s obvious, even with Ibaka available, that the team needs a third big man — Chris Boucher, while promising, is not ready to assume any regular role — and general manager Bobby Webster has to decide whether to add someone on a 10-day deal or for the rest of the regular season.
The predicament is that anyone willing to take a 10-day deal probably isn’t good enough to help on a consistent basis or couldn’t be brought up to speed quickly enough to help.
As well, anyone who might consider a rest-of-the-year deal would be looking for a team that has a defined role to offer to show off his skills. At best, when Ibaka returns, Toronto would have a third big man spot to fill and that’s hardly an attractive situation to any player trying to earn a contract for next season or a summer league invitation.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse has used a front court of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at times when he’s had Ibaka and Gasol available, and that’s something he will explore more often over the course of the next three games.
While Gasol said “we need Serge at any level,” he added that an increased workload out of necessity (he and Ibaka are the only centres on the roster currently, though the club has been linked to veteran Marcin Gortat) could be a plus.
“I could definitely use it to get used to (the team) and things like that,” Gasol said.
Gasol elaborated on his early struggles as a Raptor after his scrum had cleared out.
“I was rushing a lot of my reads (against Cleveland). I think I’m trying to pre-determine, instead of playing more trying to read and react I’m more like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this,’ and pre-determine what I’m going to do which makes it a little tougher,” Gasol told the Toronto Sun.
“I’ve just got to slow down and play at my rhythm and then take what’s there. If the turnaround jumper is there, I’ll just take it. If it’s a rhythm jumper, take the jumper. I’m trying to do things that I want to do that might not be there,” he said. “But I’ll get there, I have no doubt about (that).”
Judging by Gasol’s impressive track record, you’re inclined to believe him.
And if Gasol does manage to find his form while his teammate misses dates with Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, the suspension might end up costing Ibaka more than just some money, he could lose his starting job in the process too.
Kawhi Leonard: In a statistical vacuum, Leonard’s debut season in Toronto looks like a smashing success. He’s on a career-high pace in points (27 per game) and rebounds (7.3), while also averaging 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals. He’s playing efficiently, with a true-shooting percentage that is right on par with his last full season in San Antonio (60.8 percent in 2016-17 compared to 61 percent this season). As for the always-telling on-off marker, the Raptors are demonstrably better with him (net rating of 6.2) than without (2.8).
But with Leonard missing 19 games this season due to the rest and watching the Raptors go an impressive 14-5 without him thus far, there’s a weirdness to all this load management mayhem that could conceivably come into play if Toronto finds itself in the throes of a seven-game playoff series. After all, Leonard – who played just nine games last season when that mysterious quadriceps injury wouldn’t go away and thus decided to take this ultra-cautious approach – has only played six or more consecutive games twice this season (His longest came from Nov. 23 to Dec. 9, when he played in nine consecutive games; his second longest stretch was six). There are no back-to-backs during the playoffs and far more time between games, but it will still be fascinating to see if the Raptors’ collective unit has a reliable rhythm by then after all these months of moving parts.
Just as Kawhi Leonard likes it, there has been little ink spilled on his impending free agency as we hurdle toward the postseason. The former Spurs star is the second-best player on the market come July, yet Leonard has avoided the spotlight as rumors and drama surround Durant and Irving. But make no mistake: acquiring Leonard in July can change a franchise’s future.
Leonard’s decision will certainly determine the future in Toronto. If Leonard stays, consider the core intact, with Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Co. ready to run it back for another shot at the Finals. Marc Gasol would be smart to opt-in at $25 million. Any potential roster turnover would be on hold if Leonard returns, at least through 2019-20.
A July departure would change the calculus north of the border. Toronto will likely pray Gasol declines his option if Leonard leaves, and a returning Gasol could make for an awkward year, similar to what Memphis went through this season. Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam is not a winning formula, forming a lower-tier playoff team in the East. Toronto would be well served to sell its veterans quickly if Leonard skips town, perhaps acquiring draft capital for Lowry. Gasol should also be considered an asset to deal, though his value has markedly declined since 2016-17.
The Raptors are in-line for a sixth-straight playoff berth, but a return to the lottery in 2019-20 wouldn’t be an outright. Toronto could re-invest in its young core of Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, gearing up for the next era. Add in a lottery pick, and the next decade of Toronto basketball could mirror the last one, even without Leonard leading the way. Kawhi signing on long-term is the goal. Though if greener pastures await out west, the Raptors can still pick up the pieces, ready to rebuild quickly with a collection of young talent.
Outside of Danny Green, Miller has to be the best at catch-and-shoot Raptor around the perimeter. Miller can get his catch-and-shoot opportunities from the following scenarios:
Finding and moving to an open spot (Good); and
Running/Sprinting into the spot via set play (OK).
Former Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse did not run that many plays for Miller last year, so a a majority of his perimeter shots came from kick-outs by their guards (i.e. Lorenzo Brown). Similar to my lament with Malachi Richardson, it would have been nice if Miller got some of those set plays used to free up the likes of C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry behind the arc.
Miller’s size, quick release, and set point make his three-point shot harder to block. His shot is very economical, with no wasted movement. There’s almost no ball dip, so Miller basically catches the ball, holds it up to his set point, and shoots. It looks exactly the same, every single time. Quite similar to Danny Green (maybe even less so), he doesn’t use a lot of leg power on his shots.
Miller does not have that “jab step+step back combo” that Richardson likes to use to create his own perimeter shot, but he’ll size his man up and he’ll hoist it up if he can see some daylight.
The trade has provided a massive spark for a Memphis team that’s gone through a ton of change the last few months. At one point this month, they started five players who weren’t even on the roster on Jan. 1. Mike Conley is the constant and nearly everything else is new. Having four former Raptors — the three players in the trade, plus Bruno Caboclo — has helped expedite the formation of chemistry. The Grizzlies are in a rebuilding year, but they aren’t quite tanking. They want to maintain a strong culture and if they win in the interim, so be it.
“You let him know and let him see how he can fit, and how things can work long-term,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of working Valanciunas, who has a player option for next season, in to the team dynamic. “The good thing about him is, his personality and his character, you know, he’s such a good person that it’s easy to root for him and want him to be around. It’s not just about his basketball, it’s about building a culture. He’s the type of person that you want in your locker room. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for the team. His numbers may have elevated but the only thing he cares about is helping this group of guys win. When you have guys like that, you should do everything you possibly can to keep ’em around.”
Quickly, things are progressing. The Grizzlies have won three consecutive games against potential playoff teams and posted the league’s best defensive rating since the trade. Valanciunas has been at the forefront of all of it. He’s averaging 18.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 blocks since landing in Memphis, maintaining the same efficiency even with a noticeable spike in usage. Normally, higher usage makes it tougher to maintain efficiency. There’s selection bias present in measuring usage against efficiency since inefficient players aren’t given the leeway to use a lot of possessions, and even still Valanciunas’ career shows a player capable of doing more.
The bulk of Valanciunas’ extra usage has come in the post, where he’s averaging career-highs in usage and points per-possession. On the Raptors, a rote Valanciunas post-up was largely deemed antithetical — they wanted to be faster, more dynamic, and more efficient. For a young Memphis team prone to being on the wrong end of runs, though, there’s additional value to being able to throw the ball in the post and slow things down a beat.
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