Is it just me or do afternoon games always come wrapped in the essence of… blah?
The first game of the day vibe, the feeling that it’s so far removed from prime time, and the Toronto Raptors’ opponents haven’t done too much to help, either. The Brooklyn Nets are heavily undermanned. They will be stacked with talent next season after the presumed returns of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but for now they are well short of the talent and experience needed to push the defending champions.
Fred VanVleet’s halfcourt shot in Game 3 was a momentary thrill, as was Kyle Lowry jawing away at Justin Anderson. But this game needed — as Gregg Popovich would say — some nasty. And there are few better equipped to bring it on the Raptors roster than Serge Ibaka.
In just 23 minutes, Ibaka put up 20 points and 13 rebounds and finished a plus-12 for the game. He shot the lights out, executed Toronto’s drop coverage when he was in the game well, but the nasty in Toronto’s 117-92 win over Brooklyn came in the form of deciding to play bully ball and punishing the Nets for switching smaller guards and forwards onto him.
MOUSE IN THE HOUSE
The Nets certainly caused problems for the Raptors’ bigs in Game 2, as Marc Gasol finished with zero points, four rebounds, two assists and three turnovers in 17 forgettable minutes while Ibaka wasn’t much better with eight points, six rebounds and an assist while shooting 3-of-9 from the field in 26 minutes.
In fact, head coach Nick Nurse even elected to close a tight game without either of them, instead opting for a lineup that featured for two total minutes during the regular season with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam as the biggest players on the court for the Raptors.
“First of all, we didn’t expect them to switch all night,” Ibaka explained. “When they started switching off and we tried to go post, they were coming. They were sending everybody — two, three guys — so, as a big it’s kind of tough because then you have to stop fighting, then you get an offensive foul and then our offence kinda slows down. So, tonight I just came with a different mind set where, if they switch I’m gonna go out there and go for an offensive rebound, be active and find the open spot. That’s what I did.”
For clarity, when Ibaka says “fighting” in the quote, he’s describing having to restrain from the usual physicality and battling that goes on under the basket because any use of force is going to be manipulated by guards and wings to draw an offensive foul.
In this game, instead of giving in, Ibaka made a concerted effort to ensure he brought the pain to anyone who stepped in his path. He was relentless on the offensive glass, proving an absolute nightmare time and time again. You’ll see that in the video below, as well as an offensive foul while posting Caris LeVert that likely sent a message more than anything.
(Also, apologies in advance for my League Pass having a weird glitch in the top right corner of the screen that you’ll see in these clips. Hopefully it’s just a one time thing.)
Play No. 6 at the 1:10 mark below doesn’t involve him matched up against someone he’d have a size advantage over, but exemplifies the intent and focus he brought all game. As Siakam brings the ball up the court, he points for the Cameroonian to attack the right side of the floor, leaving room for him to charge the rim and clean up a miss. Siakam going left in that situation would take that away and mess up the spacing on the court, and it’s a brilliant tip-in in the end.
In the final play, Ibaka gets his sweet revenge on LeVert with a calm, composed post-up where he gets to his spot with ease, pump fakes to draw the contact and finishes over him anyway.
100 PERCENT PURE STROKE
Complementing his aggression on the glass, Ibaka could barely miss with his jumper as he was a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and knocked down a couple of his favourite mid-range jumpers as well. Play No. 5 is when you know he is absolutely rolling as he hoists the heat check from the top of the arc with barely any time gone off the clock.
Defensively, Ibaka was dropping extremely deep on pick-and-roll coverages, noticeably showing very little respect for Chris Chiozza.
Play No. 5 at the 0:50 mark is peak Serge intimidation factor as twice Chiozza looks to get to the basket and both times he passes it out to the perimeter. Ibaka then still finds time to put a body on Allen and prevent him from getting the rebound.
The drop coverage is something that works fine against a depleted Nets team, but should hardly be considered a decent option against the Boston Celtics who are now more than likely going to be the Raptors’ second-round opponent. Kemba Walker, most notably, absolutely ate up that coverage when the two teams met on Christmas Day in Toronto, and the Raptors will have their propensity to protect the rim tested in this series. Jayson Tatum will likely eat up that coverage as well while it’s certainly a benefit that Gordon Hayward — another with all the requisite skills to slice it up — will be absent for the duration of the series.
I also wanted to quickly highlight the play above where Ibaka did show much higher against Dzanan Musa late in the game and still found time to recover and deter Tyler Johnson at the rim after he beat Kyle Lowry going baseline. This is more along the lines of what will be required against Boston, but of course, Musa coming off a screen is a far different proposition than a Walker or Tatum. Some may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Jaylen Brown, and while I certainly respect his scoring ability, he averaged 2.6 possessions per game as a pick-and-roll ball handler, far fewer than Walker, Tatum, Hayward and even a possession less than Marcus Smart.
BONUS: SERGE GASOL
Perhaps the best evolution in Ibaka’s game over the past couple seasons has been his improvement as a passer. When he first came to Toronto, if the ball reached his hands that’s usually where the play ended. That was a direct byproduct of his formative NBA years in the Oklahoma City Thunder system where he was playing off of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the only time the ball really found him was to finish plays, either at the rim or a jumper after the two superstars attracting a second or sometimes even third player.
In the Raptors organization, everyone is challenged to get better and improve. While there were certainly growing pains as Toronto initially gave him opportunities to make reads, those reps are the reason he’s now able to make passes like the ones below.
In the first play, I would have liked to see Siakam go up with the first look even though the second attempt barely rimmed out. But again, ninety times out of a 100 a couple seasons ago, Ibaka shoots that shot. The other two passes are just perfect reads on cuts by Anunoby and Siakam.
“Just watch tape, watch tape,” Ibaka said. “The good thing is me playing with Marc, every time when Marc’s playing I always try to watch what he’s doing in the post, how he always takes his time in the post before he makes his move, I think that’s where he’s really been helping me a lot.”
Nurse had stressed the importance of cutting when Gasol’s on the court, but it’s increasingly become the case where players also stand to benefit when being conscious of their movement when Ibaka’s on the court, too.
This is another aspect that’s going to be critical against the Celtics. Boston will certainly be happier having the ball in the hands of Ibaka as much as possible when he’s on the court and living with whatever decision he makes. His improvement in this area will be tested. His ability to score both inside and out as illustrated earlier will also be important.
It should be smooth sailing in terms of closing the Nets out on Sunday, and having an Ibaka going full steam into the Eastern conference semis will make life for the Raptors just a little bit easier going forward.