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 the Washington Wizards, he answered three consecutive questions in three different languages.
The clip of Ibaka, the 28-year-old 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 makes has become increasingly more evident. If the Raptors are going to make the kind of noise in these playoffs 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 in 2012, 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 post-season 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 team-leading 23 points 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 and is able to defend opponents 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 Wizards 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 this season from a career-high 39 per cent last season — and he was not without his cold stretches. At one point in November, he missed all 12 of his three-point attempts in a span of four games. But he also seems to have found his 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, $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.
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