Vanquishing the Playoff Demons: How Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry’s heroics saved the Raptors season in Game 7

With a little under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Serge Ibaka set a screen for Kyle Lowry and rolled towards the basket. He was met firmly by Jimmy Butler and proceeded to seal him underneath the hoop, absorbing elbow blows to his midsection while beckoning for the ball. Lowry, standing just inches within the logo, quickly assessed the situation, and sent a looping pass into Ibaka’s direction. The ball hung for an eternity. Ibaka snagged the ball from the air and swiftly spun away from Butler for an layup, bringing the score to 52-57.

There may have been many other passages of play that garnered more attention on Sunday evening, most notably Kawhi Leonard’s late game heroics, so you could be forgiven for forgetting this exact moment. But you shouldn’t.

That bucket cauterized the bleeding of a momentus 16-0 Philadelphia run that had sent the Raptors spiraling. Each star from the Sixers’ vaunted starting unit took turns delivering scathing blows as they took control of the game and hushed Scotiabank Arena to silence. The Raptors had stagnated; Leonard was greeted by a forest of bodies as double and triple teams flew in his direction each time the ball touched his hands. The rest of the team could not hit a shot. Lowry and Ibaka responded.

In a few days time, the lone memory from game 7 may very well be Leonard’s all-time buzzer beating dagger. Leonard, the new face of the Toronto Raptors, has already written himself into the annals of the franchise’s playoff history. His presence calmed a fanbase, and his subsequent play has now created a boldened sense of confidence.

Yet it was Ibaka and Lowry, the lone survivors of the playoff Raptors of yesteryear, that brought Toronto back from the brink of elimination. The two men that have beared the brunt of the Raptors shortcomings over the last several seasons came up larger than imaginable in the biggest game in team history. Lowry had a modest individual statline with only 13 points and six assists, yet his fingerprints were all over the game. On the other hand, Ibaka’s numbers and on-court performance turned heads as he outscored Philadelphia’s entire bench with 17 points, nailed three crucial triples, and was a game-high plus-22 on the night. 

The next trip up the court following Ibaka’s dunk, the Congolese centre now had the ball in his hands at the top of the key. Leonard was noticeably frustrated; he had missed six shots in a row, couldn’t wriggle free from double teams, and was likely gassed from shutting down Butler as his primary defender on the other end of the floor. Lowry scampered towards the baseline and set a thumping off-ball screen for Leonard on Ben Simmons, who had been draped upon Toronto’s superstar all game. The screen sprung Leonard free as he received a quick pass from Ibaka to finally receive the easy look that he was craving for. 54-57.

Fast forward 70 seconds. Fred Van Vleet had hurled up a prayer at the buzzer which clanked off of the rim. Philadelphia, the second best rebounding team in the league and boasting a lineup in which every player was over 6’8” tall, were destined to snag the ball and punish Toronto in transition. However, there was a six foot tall Philly native on the opposing team with other plans. Lowry swooped in front of Mike Scott to corral the loose ball (in similar fashion to his Orlando heroics) and dished to Leonard for an easy eight footer. Leonard missed once more, yet Lowry hopped in front of both Joel Embiid and Butler again to grab the offensive board and bounced the ball out to Ibaka standing at the free throw line. Ibaka calmly drew in two defenders and swung the ball back in Leonard’s direction, offering him the widest of wide-open threes. 57-58.

The energy in the building was beginning to be restored. Ibaka hauled down a J.J. Redick miss and zipped the ball to Lowry, who zoomed down the court. Embiid was trotting back in transition slowly and Lowry sensed the opportune time to attack the deadly shot-blocker, lowering his shoulder and bouncing off of the centre, somehow delicately flicking the ball in off of the glass whilst faceplanting into the first row. Lowry has the unrivalled ability to be simultaneously aggressive and graceful all in one motion. 61-60.

Within moments, Van Vleet had forced a turnover and attempted to outdo Lowry’s spectacular transition finish. Jurassic Park was brimming to the point of explosion, but Embiid did not allow for the same result and pinned Van Vleet’s layup against the backboard. Simmons grabbed the rebound but looked like an unsuspecting tourist who’d mistakenly turned down the wrong street and was swiftly pick-pocketed by the thieving Lowry, who then provided a dazzling behind-the-back dime to (who else?) Ibaka for a floater. 63-60.

With the clock winding down, Leonard missed another jumper, only to be saved by Ibaka soaring past Embiid for a put-back layup. The Sixers stormed down the court to try and level the game with the quarter buzzer looming. All 7’3″ and 250 pounds of Embiid rumbled down the lane towards the cup. Lowry stepped in the line of fire, looked down the barrel of the gun, and took a straight shot right to the kisser. It’s nothing less than you’d expect from a player that has drawn more offensive fouls than every other playoff team on his own.

End of the third quarter. 67-64.

In four minutes and 45 seconds of action, Lowry and Ibaka not only made incredible individual plays to bring the Raptors back from the edge of extinction, but they were instrumental in helping Leonard find his rhythm after struggling for much of the first three quarters. And we all know what happened once Leonard found his rhythm.

When Ibaka came to Toronto there was a vague hope that he could be the third star to accompany DeRozan and Lowry. Meanwhile, during the Raptors ascendancy Lowry was forecast to be a high-scoring guard that could carry the offensive burden in the playoffs. Neither of those expectations came to fruition. But now both Lowry, the conductor and driving pulse of the team, and Ibaka, the ultimate high energy sixth man, have found their perfect roles within the team.

By trading DeMar DeRozan and core parts of the bench mob in exchange for Leonard and Gasol, Raptors President Masai Ujiri completely reshuffled the deck this season. However, Lowry still remains the team’s ace in the hole, emerging in timely fashion to make winning plays in a variety of forms.

While it has taken time for both veterans to find their playing role amongst the new-look team, they have both embodied the grit that personifies the Raptors. In game five Ibaka took a nasty shot to the head that left him bloodied, yet he returned with a bulbous goose egg and was forced into a Nelly impression for the rest of the series. On Sunday, Lowry’s left thumb popped out and he quickly strapped it up and hopped back on the floor with little fuss.

Leonard did what he does best in winning time. The late-game shotmaking was incredible. But those moments would never have presented themselves if it wasn’t for the heart and hustle of two of the longest tenured Raptors.

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