Ibaka: Well rounded, on and off court

The Sault Star - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON sstin­son@postmedia.com

TORONTO — Dwane Casey was asked whether Serge Ibaka is a good talker on the bas­ket­ball court.

“In what lan­guage?,” the coach said.

It was a very on-point joke. Ibaka, the Toronto Raptors power for­ward, set what might just be an un­of­fi­cial NBA record the other night when, af­ter his 23-point per­for­mance in Game 1 against Wash­ing­ton, he an­swered three con­sec­u­tive ques­tions in three dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

The clip of Ibaka, the 28-yearold from the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo, lis­ten­ing and an­swer­ing ques­tions in English, then French, then Span­ish, was widely shared on so­cial me­dia over the week­end. Mem­bers of the Raptors press corps are now try­ing to fig­ure out if they can ask Ibaka a ques­tion in Lin­gala, the fourth lan­guage in which he is flu­ent, to com­plete the sweep.

As im­pres­sive as his lin­guis­tic skills are, it’s what he can do on a bas­ket­ball court that caused the Raptors to ac­quire Ibaka be­fore the trade dead­line last sea­son. And, though, the ex­per­i­ment didn’t im­me­di­ately trans­form the Raptors in the way man­age­ment might have hoped, a year later the dif­fer­ence his ad­di­tion makes has be­come in­creas­ingly more ev­i­dent. If the Raptors are go­ing to make the kind of noise in these play­offs that they keep say­ing they ex­pect, then Ibaka will be a key part of it.

Ibaka, who first made his name in the league as a sur­pris­ingly ag­ile 6-foot-10 de­fen­sive ter­ror for the star-stud­ded Oklahoma City teams that made it as far as the NBA Fi­nals, im­me­di­ately be­came the most play­off-tested player on the Toronto ros­ter when he ar­rived from Or­lando last Fe­bru­ary. But, Kyle Lowry was in­jured soon af­ter he ar­rived, and by the time the post­sea­son opened last sea­son, Ibaka, Lowry and the rest of the starters had barely played to­gether.

Casey said on Mon­day that work­ing Ibaka into their sys­tems did not come quickly.

“It was more dif­fi­cult than we thought, es­pe­cially when pres­sure hit,” the coach said, re­fer­ring to in-game pres­sure, not the men­tal kind. “When you don’t know each other as well, it’s more dif­fi­cult in those sit­u­a­tions,” Casey said. “But, this year is a dif­fer­ent story for him be­cause he knows the nu­ances.”

Ibaka said much the same thing. “Last year, I didn’t re­ally have time to work with the team, with the guys, but now we know each other,” he said Mon­day, in English. “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.”

That nor­malcy was ev­i­dent in Game 1 where, with the Wizards of­ten forc­ing dou­ble-teams on DeRozan and Lowry, Ibaka was one of the Raptors who found open space to be ex­ploited. His 23 points, high­est on the team, in­cluded nine from beyond the three-point arc, where he hit three of four shots. He also scored a key late bas­ket that stretched the Toronto lead to 10, when Lowry found him cut­ting to the bas­ket in tran­si­tion. It was a play born of fa­mil­iar­ity.

Lowry said on Mon­day that Ibaka’s ver­sa­til­ity has made a big dif­fer­ence to the team.

He can shot block, he can step out and shoot the three, he can dunk,” Lowry said. “He gives us cer­tain things that we haven’t had.”

And, as much as the Raptors’ story this sea­son has been one of a deep bench and a new of­fen­sive (and de­fen­sive) phi­los­o­phy, it’s also true that the pres­ence of Ibaka has helped make all those changes pos­si­ble. He’s well-suited to all the de­fen­sive switch­ing that is part of the Toronto scheme on that end, able to han­dle guys of vary­ing size. Casey says Ibaka is an avid stu­dent, mak­ing sug­ges­tions to the coach­ing staff af­ter watch­ing video. “He’s think­ing at an­other level de­fen­sively,” the coach said.

On of­fense, he doesn’t get lost among Toronto’s ar­mada of three­p­oint bombers.

“His three-point shoot­ing is an ex­tra weapon,” Casey said. “I think three-point shoot­ing is some­thing new to Serge, I think Scotty (Brooks) is prob­a­bly look­ing at him and say­ing, ‘where was this when you were in OKC?’, but it’s a great weapon that we have.” (Brooks, the Wash­ing­ton coach, was in charge of the Thun­der when Ibaka played there.)

Still, Ibaka is not a Steph Curry from dis­tance, or even a Lowry. His shoot­ing from that range is down slightly this sea­son — 36 per cent from 39 per cent — and he was not with­out his cold stretches. At one point in Novem­ber, he went four straight games and missed all 12 of his three-point at­tempts. But he also seems to have found a stroke at the right time. Ibaka went seven straight games with at least a dozen points down the stretch, in­clud­ing a 25-point night with five made threes against In­di­ana.

It’s that kind of play that Toronto man­age­ment had in mind when they ac­quired him, and re-signed him to a three-year, US$65-mil­lion con­tract last sum­mer. Through­out the Casey-DeRozan-Lowry era, the coach has of­ten talked about the im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ing a re­li­able third scor­ing op­tion.

The ques­tion now is whether, in Ibaka, they have found him.

Serge Ibaka

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