Over the course of the Toronto Raptors’ championship run, a couple of lessons emerged that continue to hold the team in good stead as they “attack” another title:
“One thing we learned from last year is it’s not over till it’s over,” Serge Ibaka said. “You have to keep pushing, keep believing till it’s over. We have that mentality in us, that’s why we never give up, that’s why.”
That belief lifted them out of a losing situation to the Boston Celtics with 0.5 seconds remaining in Game 3 and avoid an 0-3 series deficit. To level the series, the other lesson: that it takes an assortment of players having their “moment” came to fruition in Game 4 Saturday night.
Nick Nurse said Toronto needed a wildcard at some point in the series, and Ibaka delivered in spades. He poured in 18 points, seven rebounds and a monster rejection on Daniel Theis while shooting a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc to help the Raptors stay afloat in a shaky second quarter and ultimately pull away in the fourth quarter.
Ibaka was a hero on several occasions during last year’s title run, and those monster performances came on the back of duds on several occasions. It’s taught him the value of staying in the moment, never getting too high or too low.
“I had a little rough night,” Ibaka said about how he reflected on his Game 3 two-point, four-rebound performance. “It happens to everybody, it’s the playoffs and I just told myself, ‘You know what, the most important thing is we got the win and now just focus on the next game and try to come and play better, stay positive, stay focused.'”
Kyle Lowry has been the best player on the floor the last two games, Fred VanVleet has found his range, OG Anunoby has been the X-Factor, and Pascal Siakam is showing signs of progress. And while Marc Gasol has provided invaluable defence when he’s been on the floor, that was something difficult to maintain with him having struggled with foul trouble throughout and eventually fouling out.
Ibaka’s performance was instrumental in the Raptors’ win, and here’s a closer look at how he proved a difference-maker:
100 PERCENT PURE FROM THE THREE-POINT LAND
Mr. Avec Classe, 100 percent pure from the motherland had the touch from beyond the arc in this one and it’s exactly what the Raptors need from the bigs as the Celtics continue to sell out on drives and dare both Marc Gasol and Ibaka to shoot.
Look at the time and score of each of those makes: late first quarter after the Celtics cut the lead to one, early second quarter to push it to seven, pushing the lead back up to five after Boston worked their way back once again, a final three that pushed the Raptors’ lead back up to eight. In a series the way it has and in a game that felt like it was on a knife-edge for the most part, those 3-point shots felt like cushioned seat on the back of eight hours sitting in the bleachers.
Ibaka is now 18-for-33 from deep in the playoffs and it is a complete credit to the work the 30-year-old put in after expressing his desire to become a better outside threat coming into the season. Because of his screening action, Ibaka’s open 3-point looks are consistently going to stem from above the break, and so that is specifically where he needed to improve. After shooting a putrid 29 percent from that region last year, he has leveled all the way up to 41 percent this year. Per Cleaning the Glass, that improvement has elevated him from the 21st percentile among big men to the 87th. Truly astounding.
The Raptors half-court offence found some life off high screens from their bigs in Game 3 and that trend continued into Game 4. Outside of Ibaka just hitting everything from the outside, his screens — notice just how high he’s setting them — have allowed a runway for the guards to build a head of steam and expanded the space the Celtics need to defend.
Play #2 is another area where Ibaka’s improvement needs to be appreciated. The quickness of his read in understanding the Celtics have the paint stacked for a potential roll on his part allow for a catch-and-pass about as quickly as we’d expect a catch-and-shoot a couple seasons ago. That’s not just making a read in real time, either, that’s watching film and being able to anticipate what’s coming before it even happens. It’s just too bad VanVleet misses.
In the third play at the 0:26 mark, Ibaka shoots from the mid-range where he has historically been terrific but has relatively struggled this season. He has been right around 50 percent since the 2014-15 season between 14 feet and the 3-point line, but has connected on just 39 percent of his mid-range attempts this season. Some of that should be attributed to the added focus on his 3-point stroke. He has significantly reduced the frequency with which he takes them, and so when he’s feeling it on a night like this, there’s really no harm in taking the odd shot from this range.
As mentioned previously in these breakdowns and evidenced throughout the games, Kemba Walker is extremely potent in the pick-and-roll. After a terrible shooting night in most of Game 2 before coming alive late, Walker was red hot in Game 3. He was clearly a central focus of the Raptors’ defensive game plan, one that limited Walker to just nine field-goal attempts in Game 4.
After dropping far too deep in Game 1, the Raptors big men have progressively moved higher and while still not to the level of the screen, are high enough to put up an adequate contest while still not too far up the floor to get beat on a drive. In the clips below, you can see how when Ibaka is slightly below the 3-point line in single-screening action, Walker sees that as an invitation to shoot, but if he’s right at the line or even higher then he looks to drive.
Plays 5- beginning at the 0:55 show Ibaka going up against another vital aspect of Boston’s offence: the double-screening (stagger screen) action for Walker that Samson Folk mentioned in his piece on limiting Walker. Once again, Ibaka is consistently at or above the 3-point line and that continually persuades Walker into passing off instead of being the aggressor.
“I gotta be more aggressive, I think,” Walker said after the game. “Yeah, I wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s unacceptable on my behalf to be honest. There’s no way I can just be taking nine shots. That’s unacceptable.”
Expect to see a much more aggressive Walker in Game 5, for better or worse.
Ibaka’s performance as a help defender was a bit of a mixed bag and this is arguably where you see the biggest difference in what he and Gasol bring to the table positionally and in terms of anticipation. Ibaka is by no means a bad defender, but his teammate is just a different level of elite. For the Celtics series, the Raptors have a defensive rating of 105.3 when Ibaka is on the floor which, for context, is a shade better than the Miami Heat’s overall defensive rating of 105.4 through seven playoff games. Gasol’s defensive rating 99.5.
In the first play below, you see him completely lose track of Daniel Theis as he sells out on helping VanVleet on Tatum, conceding the open jumper. In the second play, Ibaka does a good job of getting over to help on Jaylen Brown’s drive and fortunately doesn’t make any contact with his hands. The verticality isn’t ideal, so any type of contact would have likely brought a whistle. Also note Play #3 (0:35) where Brad Wanamaker has the ball in pick-and-roll action and Ibaka drops extremely deep to encourage him to shoot. That’s in stark contrast to how he defended Walker and Tatum and the right play in a “know your personnel” context. Unfortunately, there’s no help for Ibaka on Theis after he commits to the Wanamaker drive.
Play #7 (1:25) is probably the most frustrating of the lot, where he seems unaware of the action and is far too deep when he should be helping prevent the wide open 3-point look Tatum gets.
The two plays before that are a bit of him at his best. Play #5 (0:55) is excellent, where Ibaka waits for the perfect moment to present himself on Tatum’s post-up against Norman Powell and deters the shot. Play #6 is a great job by both VanVleet and Ibaka getting back in transition to create a very tough look for Smart at the rim.
On the subject of great help by Ibaka, this was the cherry on top of everything he did on the night. He’s out up high on Tatum, then hustling and showing on Wanamaker’s drive, then being enough of a presence to encourage Walker into a pass before the perfectly timed block on Theis.
Iblocka at his finest.
BONUS X2: GETTING NASTY WITH SMART
At the end of the game, it’s safe to say Marcus Smart was pulling out every trick out of grift bag he possibly could. He ended up yanking Ibaka to the ground trying to gain position for a rebound on a Tatum free-throw, and it’s hard not to look back and think there may have been a bit of build-up to it.
At the end of the first quarter, Ibaka absolutely levels Smart with a screen to free up VanVleet, and you can’t help but think Smart filed that one away for later. When the Raptors go to a 2-1-2 zone later, Ibaka is matched up with Smart, who tries to get the better of him off the bounce but instead ends up committing the offensive foul. You’ll see Ibaka looks quite pleased below.
Going back to the free-throw tangle, it’s really encouraging to see Ibaka not get caught up in Smart’s antics. You can see him nod his head as if to say, “I know what you’re doing, I know you think I’m a hot head and can get me to do something stupid, but I’m not gonna give you the satisfaction,” and then just walks away calm and collected.
Good on Serge.
It’s the type of focus the Raptors will need to win two out of three from here, and it’s encouraging to see them look the closest to the best version of themselves of late. It may have been a bit of a lull after the strike, but they’re once again peaking at the right time, a habit that Ibaka individually has made a habit of as well.
“We know we still have work to do, we’re happy with tonight’s game but we know the work is not over yet because we’ve been there before, we’re still hungry. Now, we’re gonna try and focus on the next game, tonight is over, we got the win, good, but we still have work to do.”