IBAKA’S STRONG GAME IN PLAY­OFF OPENER SPEAKS VOL­UMES

Ver­sa­tile — and mul­ti­lin­gual — power for­ward has been in­valu­able to Rap­tors

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - SCOTT ST­INSON

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

“In what lan­guage?” the coach asked.

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 the Wash­ing­ton Wizards, 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 prompted 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 has made is more ev­i­dent. If the Rap­tors are go­ing to make a lot of noise in these play­offs as they ex­pect, Ibaka will be a key part of it.

Ibaka first made his name in the NBA 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. He im­me­di­ately be­came the most play­off-tested player on the Toronto ros­ter when he ar­rived from the Or­lando Magic last Fe­bru­ary. But Kyle Lowry was in­jured soon af­ter he ar­rived, and by the time the 2017 post-sea­son came around, Ibaka, Lowry and the rest of the starters had barely played to­gether. Casey said 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. 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 putting 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 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 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 and he’s 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 of­fence, he doesn’t get lost among Toronto’s ar­mada of three-point 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 from 39 per cent — and he was not with­out his cold stretches. At one point in Novem­ber, he missed all 12 of his three-point at­tempts in a four-game span. 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 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.

NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Toronto Rap­tors for­ward Serge Ibaka, pic­tured de­fend­ing Wash­ing­ton’s Bradley Beal in Game 1 of their play­off se­ries, has be­come an in­te­gral part of the Rap­tors’ suc­cess story this sea­son, and recorded a team-high 23 points in their open­ing game vic­tory...

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Af­ter a full sea­son to­gether, Serge Ibaka says “When I play with (Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas, pic­tured left) in the paint, we un­der­stand each other more now. It feels more nor­mal now.”

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