The big man from the Republic of the Congo: Serge Ibaka. One of the craziest things about his year (one in which he became an NBA Champion) is that he hit a bigger jab-step shot than Carmelo Anthony ever did. While Game 7 of the ECSF was the high-water mark of Ibaka’s season (maybe his career) his contributions to this years Toronto Raptors were significantly larger than one game. Before we leave that game though, it’s worth mentioning that it might have been the perfect culmination of all the things Ibaka has been good at, and become good at in his career.
He patrolled his teams paint with reckless abandon, changed countless shots, and rebounded like a demon on the offensive end, all things that were identifying factors of his game early on in his career. On the other side of the floor, he flashed his touch from downtown (3-5), played a perfect role of release valve in the midrange and with his push-shot, and made advanced passes off the short-roll, all things that he added with time as he evolved into the player he is today. It was an incredible 29 minute/+22 display from Ibaka. There are plenty of reasons why the Raptors won the championship, but Ibaka’s transcendent performance in Game 7 saved their season nearly to the degree of Kawhi Leonard’s world-stopping shot. Mafuzzy Chef.
The Raptors home-court advantage in the NBA Finals was one of the most important factors in their road to the chip. Much was made of the Raptors ability to win without Leonard in the lineup, and for good reason. The Raptors were 17-5 sans Leonard, and it speaks volumes to the type of roster they had surrounding him. It seems obvious that Kyle Lowry was the largest factor in the Raptors rock-steady approach without Leonard, and Pascal Siakam deserves heaps of credit for what he did in his MIP season, but this is about Ibaka, who was a mammoth presence for the Raptors this year.
Before Marc Gasol’s arrival and the introduction of a pseudo ‘5-out’ offense in Toronto, the Raptors – and especially with Lowry’s possessions – played a lot of pick n’ roll basketball. It’s worth mentioning that Jonas Valanciunas was, of course, a terrific dive man as has been the case for most of his career, but Ibaka’s work in the pick n’ pop was one of the true go to options in the Raptors base packages. Prior to the All-Star break – and by proxy, Gasol’s arrival – Ibaka was shooting a ridiculous 59-percent from mid-range and a Steph Curry-esque 77-percent at the rim. This staggering efficiency from the mid-range (a play most defenses will concede) delivered oodles of easy points to the Raptors offense. The going strategy in the early part of the season was generally to have Ibaka murder the opposing team from mid-range, then have Siakam feast on post-ups and Ibaka start making his dives to the rim. Lowry’s un-ironic galaxy brain was tantalized at the space granted, and began serving up silver platters the likes of which would rival prime Jose Calderon.
The wonderful and synergistic mix of Ibaka’s offensive finesse and near masterful blend of physicality and ranginess on defense made for quite the player to bank on. It’s why prior to the All-Star game I wrote about him having a puncher’s chance at an All-Star spot. This year, if anything, was an incredible display on Ibaka’s part of his ability to be what the Raptors needed. To play at an All-Star level when needed (the first part of the season) and to transform into a super-sub when the Raptors asked it of him. His ability to generate offense for the Raptors bench units in the Finals was massive, and his size was one of the largest reasons that the Raptors were able to figure out the complex and overwhelming 76ers. He did all this while receiving a “demotion”. Not to mention he plays the part of a locker room favourite extremely well. By all accounts, he engages with everyone on the team with an open heart, and the team loves him for it.
There were challenges in his year, of course, but the high points make the low points look like nothing. The stretch where Valanciunas was hurt, Lowry was slumping and Gasol had not yet arrived was tough. Ibaka was constantly being marched out against some of the league’s biggest players, and night after night that took a toll on him. Outside of a few playoff games where he was puzzlingly unengaged and seemingly spaced out – which isn’t altogether surprising, as he tried to adjust to a changing role – the only thing that Ibaka didn’t excel at was being as big as the biggest guys, that’s high praise in it’s own way.
After nearly reaching the mountaintop next to Mega-Stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it’s a wonderful thing to see Ibaka become a champion on a roster where he could ascend to the second best player on the floor at times. The Raptors were one of the best built and synergistic teams we’ve seen win a championship in a long time. Outside of Leonard’s star power, the underrated talent’s of Lowry/Siakam/Ibaka and co. helped defeat the narrative of “Kawhi Leonard + scrubs” that dominated the second round, and turned it into something along the lines of: “Wow. These Raptors are a damn good team.”
Ibaka’s willingness to grow, change, and accept a role was one of the greatest stories of this year, and it was fitting that after all his sacrifice, his role off the court and on the court merged under one title: Champion.
Have a blessed day.