With all the focus on the amazing boost second year guard Norman Powell has given the Raptors in their first round playoff series against the Bucks, it is easy to look past what Serge Ibaka has not so quietly been doing as part of the veteran Big Three in Toronto.
Playing on an ankle injured in Game One of the series that was still sore in Game Five, Ibaka hasn’t missed a shift and is third in minutes played (29.4) and points scored (14) behind the Raptors All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. He also leads the Raptors in blocked shots (2.4) by a wide margin and has been strong on the defensive glass grabbing a quarter of the available boards.
It was a surprise he came back in Game One after getting hurt and playing in Game Two was never a sure thing.
“I woke up this morning and I didn’t know,” Ibaka said after Game Two. “It was a bit tight and it wasn’t 100 percent if I was going to (play). After a couple of hours, I just said I am going to try to go and if I can’t move, I’ll just ask coach to take me out.
“I knew how important this game was to our team, so I just kept working to give everything.”
After seeing limited action and shooting 1-7 in the first half, Ibaka’s ankle loosened up in the second half as he played over 22 minutes and carried the Raptors to the victory scoring 13 points on 5-8 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, dishing 6 dimes and blocking 2 shots.
Unfortunately a strong second half in Game Two didn’t mean Ibaka was back to 100 percent and he struggled in Games Three and Four, but back in Toronto for Game Five, things were about to change.
“(My ankle) is still a little sore,” Ibaka told Pro Bball Report in an exclusive after Game Five. “But it is getting better, getting stronger. I feel it is getting a lot better than the last couple of games. A lot better tonight.”
Ibaka played a strong Game Five, second in scoring with 19 points on 8-10 shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and 3 blocked shots in just 24.7 minutes as he split time at center with Jonas Valanciunas.
There was joy in Ibaka’s game again as his ankle didn’t betray him as he lifted off for a block or a jump shot.
“The (bad) ankle is on my left and the left ankle is where I jump off of the most,” Ibaka explained. “So now it is feeling better, more loose and I feel more comfortable and confidence.’
That is bad news for the Bucks who have enjoyed some measure of success at stopping DeRozan and Lowry, but as it showed in Game Five, run out of defensive options if Powell and Ibaka are going to contribute significantly on offense as well.
However, Ibaka sees himself as a defensive leader and he takes more pride in stopping his opponent than scoring on him. When Ibaka is on his defensive game and playing on a good wheel, the Raptors defense has been very good.
“We got some quiet guys, so we need some people that speak up and defense is my job,” Ibaka said. “At the five, I see everything, so I have to make sure we are on the same page. Sometimes it is tough. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you can lose the strategy on defense and it is my job to remind my teammates how we are to play every time.
“When the team is winning, everybody looks good,” Ibaka explained. “My job is help my teammates, to do whatever it takes for us to get a “w” and then everybody looks good.”
Even playing on a bad ankle, Ibaka has been able to be the third star player teams search for when trying to make a deep postseason run. If that ankle has improved further from Game Five, the Raptors ability to put the Bucks behind them should be assured.