When you think of Serge Ibaka at his finest — beyond fashion advice and throwing down in the kitchen — it usually entails a fierce, intense energy, a competitive fire that seeps through his pores and onto every inch of his face. The scowl, the stare, the primal roar, that’s Ibaka.
Through four games in the bubble, it hasn’t quite felt like the Serge we’ve grown accustomed to watching in a Toronto Raptors uniform and he’s recognized it, too.
“Everyone has bad games, we know that,” Ibaka said. “You have to trust your hard work. After a bad game, you have to sit down and ask yourself, ‘Did you do all the professional [things] right? The day before, did you take extra shots? Did you work on your game? Did you sleep good? Did you eat healthy? Did you get a massage?
“If you check all those boxes and you have a bad game, well, then things happen. All you have to do is go back and stay focused and stay believing in yourself and come back and try to be better.”
Sage advice from one of the key veterans on the Raptors roster, and that wisdom appeared to help him get back in a groove against the
Vancouver Memphis Grizzlies Sunday. Ibaka finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks in 25 minutes to help the Raptors to a bounce back 108-99 victory.
Ibaka had gotten off to a strong start in the first two scrimmage games, but it’s worth remembering that those two games saw Marc Gasol play a grand total of 10 minutes. Ibaka started and produced at the level he expects of himself. After most players no-showed in the final scrimmage, Mr. Avec Classe has had to readjust to playing behind Gasol, something he hadn’t done since Jan. 28 against the Atlanta Hawks because of the Spaniard’s injuries.
As a starter, Ibaka has averaged 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field and 43.7 percent from 3-point range in 27 games. He’s come off the bench on 28 occasions and played an average of nine minutes less, producing 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from 3-point range. The drop-off in his outside shooting is a bit of a concern, but may also be reflective of the drop-off in spacing when he’s playing with the second unit as opposed to the first and taking less open shots as a result. With tighter playoff rotations, that should be less of an issue.
For now, let’s see what made him successful against the Grizzlies.
Almost half of Ja Morant’s shot attempts come at the rim — where he shoots 58% — which puts him in the 94th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. To negate some of his rim threat, the Raptors turned to a drop coverage in the pick-and-roll with guards consistently steering Morant inside the 3-point line and the primary big standing tall to dissuade any rim attacks. As per usual, there was plenty of help available as well to push Morant to pass, even if it meant the ball finding open 3-point shooters.
In the first couple plays below, you see Ibaka’s positioning has Morant thinking pass or shoot from the mid-range, both considered wins for the Raptors. It must be said that the 21-year-old phenom has been quite good with his in-between game this season, shooting 44.7 percent in the 5-14ft. range, but that number does drop down to 35.5 percent in the 15-19ft. range. In the third play below (0:19), Morant does find a path all the way to the bucket, but Ibaka’s strong contest forces the rookie into something he’s been relatively exceptional at this season — the mid-air pass — but this occasion results in a turnover.
It’s really important that guards pressure ball handlers from behind the way the Raptors guards do here, as poor defence in this regard can lead to an open three or a simplified decision making process as Morant surveys his options closer to the paint. Later, you also see Ibaka dropping against Melton and then providing a strong contest at the rim. This is pretty much exactly how you want your big to be able to execute the drop.
The final two plays show some excellent awareness on Ibaka’s part, as he first keeps his arms wide (1:00) and is able to get a slight deflection on Morant’s pass to a cutting Dillon Brooks that causes a steal and then is clever enough not to fall for Morant’s ball fake to the roller and contests the guard’s shot attempt. Unfortunately, no one is able to pick up on Brandon Clarke and so the result is a dunk.
For five seasons between 2010-15, Ibaka averaged at least 2.4 blocks per game, and an eye-popping career-high 3.7 blocks per in his 2011-12 campaign. It was a run that saw him make three All-Defensive teams as well as a two-time league leader in blocked shots. The league has transformed since, Ibaka had his position changed, defended more of the perimeter and the numbers steadily dipped.
The last couple seasons, though, Ibaka has almost exclusively seen his minutes at centre, and while the shot blocking numbers aren’t quite there anymore, the residual value of five years of intimidation as well as his terrific ability to time contests while using more of the verticality principle has seen him maintain a strong defensive presence in the paint. There’s plenty of that to marvel at below:
Play No. 4 (0:41) is my second-favourite as Brooks instantly goes into panic mode seeing Ibaka in transition and tries to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. The ball ends up in the hands of Kyle Lowry. Of course, nothing can beat the monster rejection Ibaka had on Clarke that was initially called a foul and then changed after Nick Nurse went to a Coach’s Challenge. There is no word yet on whether the technical foul Ibaka received for arguing the initial call will be rescinded, but that’s just a brutal double-down of a mistake.
CREATING FOR TEAMMATES
How about some offence? Ibaka made the interesting choice of channeling his inner Marc. The 30-year-old has spoken glowingly on several occasions about the impact Gasol has made on him as a player, most notably in his desire to become a better passer.
Instead of forcing the issue early on in an effort to find a rhythm, Ibaka gets his teammates some good looks and gets them feeling good. The most impressive highlights in the plays below are when the Grizzlies try to pressure him into a bad decision with a double-team, something that would have surely worked a couple seasons ago. Ibaka has made significant strides in reading the defence and making the right pass, and his ability to do so was on full display on this night.
Play No. 3 (0:20) is a thing of beauty. Ibaka is one step ahead of the defence and anticipating the double before they even get to him. He’s surveyed the floor and Norman Powell picks an opportune time to cut to the basket and Ibaka throws a soft lob that Powell is able to collect and throw down his patented hammer dunk.
Included are a couple plays where Ibaka helps create room for his teammates with screens, but let’s focus on Play No. 5 (0:40) as it highlights the difference in playing drop coverage poorly. Jonas Valanciunas drops, but instead of steering Powell towards him, Anderson goes under the screen and gives Powell a wide open 3-point opportunity. This is absolutely not what the drop coverage is designed to do and with the way Powell has performed this season, you expect him to make the defence pay.
The final play I’ll highlight is right after the previous clip descired, with Ibaka making his way down the floor in transition and Valanciunas still trailing the play. He receives the ball from Lowry, but is a little too pass-happy and finds a cutting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ibaka really should be understanding the value of him going up there versus Hollis-Jefferson trying to finish a reverse layup and take the shot himself.
There was a little bit of everything for Ibaka against the Grizzlies with regards to his own offence. There were a couple shots beyond the arc, a couple of good looks from the mid-range, a Dream Shake lite move, and a couple put-backs as well. The activity right around the glass is always great to see, and a few of those extra possessions certainly won’t hurt the Raptors’ offence when it’s under playoff duress.
Ibaka’s offensive presence is key to the Raptors having an extended playoff run. He is their best mid-range shooter and finishes over 70 percent of his opportunities at the rim. He shares great chemistry with Lowry and there have been signs of improved play in tandem with Fred VanVleet.
Looking ahead to potential matchups, the Celtics provide an opportunity to feast with their lack of size while the Bucks have consistently opted to make Ibaka a scorer as they feel it helps mitigate the threat of everyone else around him. The difference in that potential series is going to be the regularity with which he can drain the 3-ball, since years past have seen him take the mid-range shot the Bucks have been willing to concede to him.
Just how much the Raptors are willing to reveal in a meaningless matchup with the Bucks Monday night is a huge question mark considering how the game against the Celtics went, but there may be something to gain in Ibaka showing off his 3-point prowess to put something in the back of Milwaukee’s minds if the two teams were to play each other.