Rap­tors’ Ibaka ready to ful­fil key role

Big man con­trib­utes de­fen­sive tough­ness, solid shoot­ing

The Niagara Falls Review - - Sports - LORI EWING

TORONTO — Serge Ibaka had barely played along­side Kyle Lowry when the Toronto Rap­tors opened the play­offs last Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion sea­son.

The big man was ac­quired at the trade dead­line, and played the fi­nal 23 games of the reg­u­lar sea­son for Toronto. But Lowry was out with a hand in­jury and didn’t re­join the team un­til four games be­fore the play­offs tipped off.

The Rap­tors had en­vi­sioned Ibaka help­ing them past LeBron James and the Cava­liers, but with lit­tle time to jell, it just didn’t hap­pen.

“It was more dif­fi­cult than we thought, es­pe­cially when pres­sure hit,” coach Dwane Casey said. “When you don’t know the nu­ances or know each other well, it’s more dif­fi­cult in those sit­u­a­tions. We had to sim­plify some things last year just be­cause of P.J. (Tucker) and Serge com­ing in ... I prob­a­bly didn’t do a good job of in­te­grat­ing them in quick enough.”

Ibaka, ac­quired for his de­fen­sive tough­ness and solid shoot­ing, av­er­aged 14.3 points and 6.5 re­bounds in Toronto’s 10 play­off games, but the Rap­tors were swept in the sec­ond round by Cleve­land.

This sea­son is a “dif­fer­ent story,” Casey said. Ibaka had the ben­e­fit of train­ing camp and a full sea­son with the Rap­tors and, on Satur­day, he had a team-high of 23 points and 12 re­bounds in Toronto’s Game 1 vic­tory over Wash­ing­ton.

“Last year, I didn’t re­ally have time to work with the team, with the guys, but now we know each other,” Ibaka said. “Kyle, he knows where I like to go. De­Mar (DeRozan), he knows what I like to do. I know what Kyle and De­Mar like to do now. When I play with (Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas) in the paint, we un­der­stand each other more now. It feels more nor­mal now.”

Ibaka’s postgame news con­fer­ence Satur­day was al­most as im­pres­sive as his game. The Con­golese player an­swered ques­tions in English, French and Span­ish with­out miss­ing a beat.

When asked Mon­day if Ibaka is a de­cent talker on de­fence, Casey replied: “In what lan­guage?”

“He sees things. He’s talk­ing. He’s out there on the court giv­ing guys ad­vice. He’s un­be­liev­able from that stand­point,” Casey added.

The coach hopes to cap­i­tal­ize on Ibaka’s play­off ex­pe­ri­ence. He’s played in 100 post-sea­son games, 89 of them with Ok­la­homa City.

“That right there ... just the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing around a guy like (Rus­sell) West­brook and (James) Har­den and all those guys, (Kevin) Du­rant, spe­cial sit­u­a­tions, you can’t put a dol­lar value on that. That’s in­valu­able,” Casey said. “And you cant give it to any­body. You gotta go through that.

“He’s been through the fire.” Casey had the 6-10 Ibaka and seven-footer Lu­cas Nogueira on the floor to­gether when the Rap­tors pulled away from the Wizards in the fourth quar­ter. The duo com­bined for a for­mi­da­ble front­court wall.

“Yes, big time,” Ibaka said. “(Nogueira) is so long. He reaches, ev­ery time you go into the paint and you see Lu­cas, he makes you think twice.”

Casey had no news on Fred VanVleet on the eve of Game 2 at the Air Canada Cen­tre. The backup guard missed Game 1 with a bruised shoul­der af­ter a hard hit in the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale in Mi­ami.

Lowry was in full play­off cur­mud­geon mode Mon­day, open­ing his news con­fer­ence with: “Please say no (ques­tions).” When a re­porter asked a ques­tion he replied: “I just asked you to say no.”

He com­plained about the ice storm that pounded Toronto over the week­end.

“It’s great weather we’ve got out here, it’s great weather,” Lowry said sar­cas­ti­cally.

Wash­ing­ton guard John Wall missed a good chunk of the sea­son with a knee in­jury. Asked whether he sensed Wall had lost a step from his ab­sence, Lowry replied: “No. Did you watch? Yeah, yeah, no, still pretty fast. I used to be that fast ... when I was like 10.”

The Rap­tors 114-106 win over Wash­ing­ton on Satur­day marked the first time the team had won a play­off opener since 2001.

But Lowry and the Rap­tors are ex­pect­ing a fierce fight from the Wizards in Game 2 on Tues­day night.

“Ev­ery­thing we’re do­ing is a part of our jour­ney to our end goal. And we all know what the end goal is. Ev­ery night, ev­ery game, Game 1 was just one step to our jour­ney. Game 2 is an­other Game 7 for us, the way we’ve gotta play,” Lowry said.

Added Casey: “I told our guys, (Tues­day’s) game is go­ing to be one of the tough­est we’ve played, just be­cause of the fact we knew how we felt los­ing Game 1, how des­per­ate we come out af­ter Game 1, and (the Wizards) are go­ing to be no dif­fer­ent.

“They’re a tal­ented team, well­coached team, they’re not your typ­i­cal eight seed, and they’re go­ing to come out breath­ing fire. And we’ve got to do the same, we’ve got to come in (and) pro­tect home, we’ve done it all year, and we’ve got to do it with a sense of ur­gency and a tough­ness it’s go­ing to take to win Game 2, af­ter go­ing up 1-0.”

The Rap­tors lost just seven games at the Air Canada Cen­tre in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

NOTES: Delon Wright’s condo lost power Sun­day night due to the ice storm. “It wasn’t good. I just went to Real Sports (Bar) and charged up my phone there.” Did he need ex­tra blan­kets? “No, I just wore a sweater and some sweats. It was all right.”

NATHAN DENETTE THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Wizards’ guard Bradley Beal drives to the net against Rap­tors’ for­ward Serge Ibaka early in Satur­day’s Game 1.

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