The Toronto Raptors continue to tussle with the Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
While they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday, we have to remember the game was on the second night of a back-to-back and the third and final stint of a road trip.
Consider that, less than 24 hours beforehand, the Raptors had beaten the New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat handily by double digits, including a 21-for-40 three-point barrage in South Beach.
Under first-year head coach Nick Nurse, the talented combination of Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green and Marc Gasol—plus an energetic, lethal bench awaiting the return of Fred Van Vleet—looks to be poised for big things come playoff time.
With so much positive energy around Toronto’s organization, some have tended to overlook the man in the middle who’s been having as consistent of a season as any player on the roster—Serge Ibaka.
In his first full year with the Raptors, Ibaka looks extremely comfortable at the center position on both ends of the floor, and his production has been reminiscent of his dominant Oklahoma City Thunder days.
Notorious for his emphatic rejections and physical style on the defensive end, Ibaka has become a true leader for Toronto.
“He understands the coverages and the game plan,” Nurse said during pre-game in Cleveland. “He’s talking to guys out there and letting ‘em know what’s coming and he’s really good at communicating, those type of things. So he’s kind of an anchor back there.”
In the last four games combined, Ibaka has blocked 14 shots. He probably would’ve had a couple more if the scuffle between him and Marquese Chriss didn’t happen, too. Nurse acknowledged that since the Raptors acquired Gasol that he’s picked the rim protection back up.
On the year as a whole, Ibaka is averaging 1.4 blocks per game. However, his presence in the restricted area is more telling of the 29-year-old’s skill.
Among players seeing at least five tries within five feet per game, Ibaka is fourth in the league in defending those attempts at 54.2 percent. Putting this in perspective, he’s ranked above the likes of Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis in that category.
Yes, all of those players might be seeing more action under the rim, but that’s natural since the star players’ minutes exceed Ibaka’s by quite a bit. You could also surmise that those penetrating opponents are getting rid of the ball when the 6-foot-10 big man comes over to alter or deter those shots.
What really stands out about Ibaka’s season, though, is the job he’s done as a scorer. He’s obviously not getting the volume of work that Leonard and Lowry do, yet he is putting up the best offensive numbers of his career in five years—averaging a shade over 15 points and 8 rebounds per contest.
Per Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors’ offensive rating is 116.8 with Ibaka on the floor. When he’s not playing, they’re losing 8.1 points per 100 possessions.
Other than having an uncharacteristically down year from deep, Ibaka is thriving in Nurse’s scheme. Taking a gander at his shot chart, there’s a mixture of areas where he’s had success.
For example, Ibaka is one of five centers in the NBA that has attempted three or more shots each in the restricted area, in the paint and from mid-range. He’s the leader in field goal percentage across the board in all three categories.
In pick-and-roll plays as the roll man, Ibaka is the top dog with a 56.1 percent success rate and the highest score rate in the league. He is just barely behind Al Horford at 1.12 points per possession in such situations, too.
Credit his chemistry with Lowry for the majority of these scenarios, and a rapport will likely develop quickly with Jeremy Lin when Ibaka is playing with the second unit.
Before you ask why Nurse is putting Ibaka with the bench bunch, it’s an easy answer—lineups depend on matchups. When there is a more traditional center out there, Gasol is going to get the nod. If the opposition has a guy who is more versatile to stretch the floor, Ibaka would likely be in the starting five.
In the future, we might even see the two play alongside one another with Gasol at the five and Ibaka shifted over at power forward. Nurse is curious to see the strengths and weaknesses of that pairing since they’ve only played a total of 10 minutes since the trade.
“We haven’t had them together very often,” Nurse said. “It’s another one of those combinations that we’d probably like to look at a little bit more just for the heck of it. You never know when we may need to have both of them out there in the future, so they probably need a little time together.”
Whether it’s playing with the first five, backing up Gasol or joining forces with him, Ibaka’s efforts will certainly not go unnoticed. He’s made his mark for this Toronto group, and they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in without him.
Once Ibaka returns from his three-game suspension, he’ll be as hungry as he’s ever been to push the Raptors to the conference apex.
This has only been an appetizer.
Ibaka is salivating for the full-course meal.