The Shot Blocker with a Three in his Locker: Serge emerges in Raptors crucial Game 4 win

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He feigned a pass to the wing, catching his defender flat-footed as he viciously cut back onto his right hand. Blood was in the water. As his defender helplessly backpedalled to recover, he flummoxed them once more with an equally abrupt behind-the-back dribble. Then, he pirouetted backwards, bang, one-two step, like a tap dancer nailing their recital. He smoothly rose for the jumpshot over his defender who, although was present in person, was crushed in spirit. The net snapped as the ball flew through. Pure.

Who executed this elegant piece of basketball skill you may ask? Well, Serge Ibaka, of course. Duh.

The man who has been feeding his teammates bull penis, testicles, crickets, and lamb brains since his arrival in Toronto waited to cook up his tastiest dish for the two-time defending champions.

“Boys’ pants too tight he can’t even sit down,” Kyle Lowry said, commenting on Ibaka’s leather-centric post-game podium outfit.

He really shouldn’t sit down after Friday night. He should stand up and take a bow.

Ibaka chose the perfect time to have a signature performance, lifting the Raptors to an emotional 105-92 road victory in a crucial Game 4 with 20 points, four rebounds, and a pair of blocks in just 22 minutes of action. This has been par for the course for Ibaka, four of his six highest scoring performances this postseason have come in Game 4s. Once he has found traction in each series the entirety of his performance suddenly vaults to new heights.

“Once he gets into the series, he seems to stay in the series,” Nick Nurse said.

It wasn’t simply an out of body experience for the Congolese centre, he also chipped in with his customary highlight reel blocks and unquantifiable energy plays. Ibaka checked in with the Raptors down 12-21 and struggling to even hit the rim on wide open looks. As the second quarter opened he secured a defensive rebound to initiate a transition attack and then finished inside with a soft hook shot after Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell finally managed to penetrate the paint. Danny Green then missed a clean look from deep; no problem, Ibaka was there for the offensive board and easy putback.

The following play, Cousins tried to flip in a similar putback only to be firmly rejected by Ibaka. After exchanging a few missed shots, Ibaka then pulled out the aforementioned shimmy step-back. Sheesh. When in Oracle, put on your best Steph Curry impression, I guess. Let’s see that bad boy one more time!

He still wasn’t done. Nick Nurse briefly threw out the supersized lineup with Marc Gasol and Ibaka sharing the floor and the former tipped an offensive board in Ibaka’s direction for another hook shot. The Warriors still possessed a lead by the time Ibaka checked out, but he prevented it from falling out of reach early. His teammates, outside of the infallible Kawhi Leonard, struggled to shoot and Ibaka got the ugly points necessary to remain within touching distance.

The Raptors should have drowned in that first half, but Ibaka kept them afloat. Once the second half began, Leonard calmly rolled out and, in the words of Fred VanVleet, landed two ‘F You shots’ to suddenly change the entire energy in the arena. Leonard consistently landed jabs, getting great usage out of his ‘bucket’ catchphrase to halt the momentum and Ibaka swooped in with Andy Ruiz inspired haymakers to batter the Warriors into submission. Ibaka’s equivalent to Ruiz’ third round flurry was soon approaching.

With the game tied 61 apiece, Curry sliced his way into the paint and dished to a cutting Alfonzo McKinnie after drawing the attention of every Raptor defender. McKinnie launched a seemingly surefire floater only to be thwarted by the recovering Ibaka. He gathered the block, trailed in transition and nailed a backbreaking three-pointer, his first of the entire Finals.

That right there is a five point swing. You don’t need advanced analytics to tell you that.

Later, the Raptors reverted back to their ‘janky’ box-and-one defence with no threatening shooters on the floor outside of Curry. It stifled them once again and after two successful defensive possessions, the Warriors were forced to bring Klay Thompson back on the floor and responded with their own 3-2 zone defence. Toronto didn’t flinch. They zipped the ball across the perimeter, a textbook method to stress a zone defence, and Ibaka knifed into the middle of the stretched defence and demanded the ball. VanVleet fed him and Ibaka rose for his patented mid-range with Curry barely even managing to contest the shot. In addition to the Ibaka ‘Shot Blocka’ nickname, he may now also be referred to as the ‘Zone Buster’. (This may need seem work, I used up all my good rhymes in the title.)

Golden State quickly reverted back to man-on-man defence; time for Ibaka to unleash another offensive weapon. In their last ditch attempt to claw their way back, the Warriors put Green at centre, something they’ve refrained from for most of the series. VanVleet and Lowry began spamming Ibaka in the high pick-and-roll to bring Green away from the rim, and the strings of the Warriors’ once airtight defence unraveled. The Warriors have had plenty of question marks at the centre position over the course of the series. Conversely, Toronto boast two quality big men and knew it was time to attack Golden State’s depleted frontcourt.

The Warriors call it their ‘death lineup’ for a reason: it has destroyed the league for five years. Tonight, it only led to their demise.

As the Golden State defence became more frantic in search of a dramatic turnaround, the Raptors became infinitely more calm. Toronto had figured their opponent out and were steps ahead; the Warriors were playing checkers while the Raptors were playing, well, basketball. And they were doing it to perfection. It was time for Ibaka and co. to follow Ruiz’ underdog footsteps and deliver a knockout blow to the rattled champion.

Leonard summoned Ibaka for the high screen and quickly slipped the ball to his rolling centre as he foresaw the telegraphed Golden State trap. Ibaka then pulled off a sumptuous give-and-go with Lowry, taking a page from Barcelona’s ‘tiki-taka’ playbook, and crammed home a thunderous dunk to provide Toronto with an unassailable lead.

“We have been getting better and better each round,” said Ibaka. “We have put in hard work. We believe in us.”

Now the rest of the world is being forced to believe in him, and the Raptors, as well.


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