Powering up in Toronto

New Rap­tor Serge Ibaka says he’s ex­cited to play ‘for some­thing again’

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY LORI EWING THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Serge Ibaka flashed a wide smile, and said he is ex­cited to play for a win­ner again.

The Toronto Rap­tors hope the new­comer can help turn them back into one.

Ibaka, who was ac­quired in Tues­day’s trade that sent Ter­rence Ross to Or­lando, ar­rived at Air Canada Cen­tre on Wed­nes­day amid re­newed op­ti­mism. The Rap­tors are hop­ing the ath­letic power for­ward can help pull them out of their worst slump in two sea­sons, while Ibaka is happy to be back with a team in the play­off race.

“For me it’s kind of go­ing up again, go­ing back in com­pe­ti­tion again and play­ing for some­thing. I’m very ex­cited,’’ said Ibaka, wear­ing a navy blue wool tuque suit­able for his new north­ern home. “One thing I know is the last two years (the Rap­tors) were go­ing up, up, up. I saw last year what they did in the play­offs and it was im­pres­sive.’’

It’s been down, down, down, how­ever, for Toronto the past few weeks. Head­ing into Wed­nes­day’s matchup against vis­it­ing Char­lotte, the Rap­tors had lost 11 of 15 games and plum­meted from sec­ond to fifth in the Eastern Con­fer­ence.

Or­lando is 14th in the East, six spots out of the play­off race.

Be­cause of this week­end’s NBA all-star break, Rap­tors fans will have to wait un­til Feb. 24 — when Toronto hosts the Bos­ton Celtics — to see Ibaka play. He’ll wear No. 9. What can they ex­pect? “A team like this, I’m just go­ing to try to bring my ex­pe­ri­ence and my de­fen­sive game, my tough­ness, my en­ergy,’’ said the 27-year-old Con­golese player. “Be­cause when you have guys like Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan), you don’t need an of­fen­sive, scor­ing guy re­ally. You need a guy who can bring some phys­i­cal­ity and de­fen­sive plays, en­ergy, run­ning up and down. Those are the things I’m re­ally go­ing to bring.’’

Ibaka — who Rap­tors pres­i­dent Ma­sai Ujiri has cov­eted for years and fondly re­ferred to as a “war­rior’’ on Tues­day — spent seven sea­sons in Ok­la­homa City. Play­ing along­side Rus­sell West­brook and Kevin Du­rant, he led the league four times in blocked shots and helped the Thun­der to six con­sec­u­tive play­off ap­pear­ances.

That kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, said Rap­tors coach Dwane Casey, is price­less.

“Our young guys are go­ing through that ... first time you see some­thing, you know it’s a shock to the sys­tem where a guy like Serge has seen ev­ery­thing, he’s ex­pe­ri­enced ev­ery­thing,’’ Casey said. “He’s been to the fi­nals. That ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self is huge and the more we can get that type of ex­pe­ri­ence around Kyle and DeMar and some of our younger guys, it’s a huge, huge plus.’’

With chem­istry be­ing a big key to any team’s suc­cess, Casey be­lieves Ibaka should fit in seam­lessly with his new team­mates.

“One player falls out, it’s a thin line,’’ the coach said. “So chem­istry is very im­por­tant. I see Serge as a team-first guy, a guy who’s been on win­ning teams, and knows what it takes to win, knows how to give him­self to the team. So I don’t see any prob­lems there what­so­ever.’’

Ibaka didn’t play Wed­nes­day, Casey ex­plained, be­cause of his late-night flight to Toronto and a day spent with doc­tors for his re­quired phys­i­cal.

“As much as we’d love to have him out there, he’s a hu­man be­ing go­ing through emo­tions,’’ Casey said. “Be­ing traded is not easy. We’ll see plenty of him come the 24th.’’

When Ibaka, wear­ing a black Rap­tors hoodie and red bas­ket­ball shoes, met with the me­dia Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, he still hadn’t had a chance to speak with his new coach. A meet­ing with Casey was next on his jam­packed Day 1 sched­ule.

Ibaka said it was a whirlwind day-and-a-half since the trade news broke Tues­day morn­ing.

“Oh yes, lit­tle crazy, lit­tle crazy,’’ Ibaka said. “Telling my daugh­ter (Ranie) I’m leav­ing, be­cause she had to stay in Or­lando for school ... it’s been a lit­tle crazy but one thing I know is things hap­pen for a rea­son. And I’m here for a rea­son, so like I said, I’m ready to go.’’

Ujiri will look to re-sign Ibaka this off-sea­son when he be­comes a free agent. Asked whether it was too soon to look ahead to the sum­mer, he let out a loud laugh.

“Yes. Very too soon,’’ Ibaka said.

Ibaka will play power for­ward plus some cen­tre, when Casey’s lineup goes small.

Asked if he feels any pres­sure to help turn around the Rap­tors’ for­tunes, Ibaka shrugged.

“It’s al­ways pres­sure in sport,’’ he said. “It was a lot of pres­sure since Day 1 in Or­lando, and it’s go­ing to be al­ways pres­sure, but I think those pres­sures make us bet­ter. With­out pres­sure, I’m not go­ing to wake up ev­ery day to go work, or do ex­tra shoot­ing, or lift­ing.

“I do those kinds of things be­cause I know I have pres­sure on my back. So that’s go­ing to make us bet­ter.’’

CP PHOTO

Newly ac­quired Toronto Rap­tors for­ward Serge Ibaka leaves for the dress­ing room af­ter player in­tro­duc­tions ahead of first half NBA bas­ket­ball ac­tion against the Char­lotte Hor­nets in Toronto on Wed­nes­day.

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