The Toronto Raptors haven’t seen a power forward like Serge Ibaka since Chris Bosh was playing for Toronto and they are doing everything they can to make the pending free agent very happy.
“I am so thankful with the Raptors because I am playing a couple of minutes at the five (and) at the four,” Ibaka told Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical Podcast with Woj when the Raptors played in Washington recently. “I like that. It is bringing back my mentality, my aggressiveness, my team defense to protect the paint.”
Ibaka has hit the ground running with his new team. Scoring, rebounding, nailing three-pointers, guarding the perimeter, protecting the paint and playing 35 minutes per game. There has been an understanding between Toronto and their newest star player from the instant the deal with Orlando was done. This NBA Finalist and three-time Western Conference Finalist’s job is to take the Raptors to the next level. No one needed to tell him that.
“Masai (Ujiri) is a professional, I am a professional,” Ibaka explained. “As soon as I heard they did that deal on the table, they got me, I already knew what I had to do. I already knew why they needed me. There wasn’t really a lot to talk about because you already know what time it is right now. It’s not the beginning of the season. It’s after the All-Star break.”
A 4-1 start with their trade deadline additions while missing All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry says it all. Raptors president Masai Ujiri knew what his team needed and went out and got it. In Ibaka’s opinion, Ujiri did everything necessary to put the Raptors into the same position he was while playing with the Thunder. An NBA Finals contending team.
“If everybody is healthy, yes,” Ibaka responded to Wojnarowski’s query about the Raptors potential. “The team we have right now, yes. We got Tucker. He’s a tough defender. He’s helping us with toughness. When Kyle comes back, with the guys we have, I believes yes.”
Ibaka feels that his reputation as a defender has taken a hit since he was a three-time first team NBA All-Defensive player with the Thunder earlier in his career. The game has changed since he started playing, the players on the Thunder changed and the role he was asked to play changed. However, Ibaka believes, with plenty of justification, that if his role was more like what he did when he led the NBA in blocks, his reputation as a defender would be renewed.
“The game has changed now,” Ibaka said. “The game is fast now. You have centers who shoot threes now.
“People outside don’t understand.
“The hard part is people outside in the media when they are saying Serge Ibaka, why is he always shooting threes? He never developed his post game and he (plays) out(side) now. He’s not blocking shots. All those things, blah, blah, blah.
“My role (in OKC) started to change and of course I could not say no because it was better for the team for me to be outside shooting threes. Before I used to run down to the paint for the first rebound and (then) coach asked me to run to the three-point line to open (the floor) for Kevin (Durant) and Russell (Westbrook) to attack the basket.”
It’s not what Ibaka wanted to do. He still likes the dirty work inside, but he did what was best for the team at the time.
In Toronto, head coach Dwane Casey is making sure Ibaka is getting plenty of opportunity to play inside, however, there is a cost to a couple of the guys who used to have that role.
Since Ibaka’s arrival, the Raptors starting center Jonas Valanciunas has seen his minutes drop from his season average of 26.2 to just 18.6 and backup center Lucas Nogueira, averaging 20.7 minutes this year, has played in just two seconds over the past three games. Keeping Ibaka happy has meant sacrifices for other Raptors’ players.
However, similarly to what happened in Oklahoma City, coach Casey is doing what’s best for the team and the role suites Ibaka perfectly. Air Congo is patrolling the perimeter like a modern 4/5, hitting threes and guarding everyone from stretch fives to point guards. Then he’s guarding the paint like a center, grabbing boards and blocking shots reminiscent of his days playing in OKC.
It turns out that keeping Ibaka happy is helping the Raptors win.