Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have Raptors looking tougher for playoffs

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Raptors coach Dwane Casey praised plenty of his players after beating the Pistons on Wednesday – Kyle Lowry for hitting the ground running after a wrist injury, Cory Joseph for sparking a 20-point comeback, DeMar DeRozan for nailing a big shot late, Jonas Valanciunas for hitting a clutch free throw.

And then Casey got to Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

“They gave us physical toughness,” Casey said, “that we haven’t had.”

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Toronto has won 201 games – more than any team in the East. But the Raptors have disappointed in the playoffs.

As the No. 3 seed in 2014, they lost to the Nets. Again with home-court advantage in 2015, Toronto got swept by the Wizards. The Raptors finally got off the schneid after winning franchise-record 56 games and securing the number two seed last year, but they still looked unimpressive while scraping by the Pacers and Heat in seven games a piece.

This year could be different.

Toronto (48-31) is once again impressing in the regular season. But Ibaka and Tucker – acquired in February trades before the deadline – have changes this team’s dynamic in a way that bodes well for the postseason.

Ibaka is a shot-blocking big man who’s hitting the defensive glass harder in a contract year. Though just 6-foot-6, Tucker uses his strength and physicality to be a combo forward who can even cover some guards.

With those two on the court, the Raptors have allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would lead the league over the full season.

“Of course. It’s not surprising,” Ibaka said. “That’s why we’re here.”

For now.

They’re really in Toronto to help in a potential playoff rematch with the Cavaliers, who beat the Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Tucker has even received some buzz as a LeBron James stopper, and though his ability to shut down LeBron is surely overstated, Tucker brings a new element to his new team.

Toronto’s offense has drive the team’s success the last few years.

The Raptors ranked third in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating in 2014-15. So, they signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo the following summer to shore up their defense. It improved, but not to a high level. Last season, Toronto’s defense ranked 11th – its fifth-ranked offense still better. That style continued to start this season, the Raptors ranking fourth offensively and 16th defensively at the All-Star break.

Enter Ibaka and Tucker.

Toronto has the NBA’s fourth-best defense since the trade deadline.

Here’s the Raptors’ ranking in offensive (red) and defensive (black) rating each year, with this season split by the trade deadline:

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Year Offensive Defensive
2013-14 9 9
2014-15 3 23
2015-16 5 11
2016-17 (pre) 4 16
2017-17 (post) 13 4

Don’t fret about the offensive drop in the second half. Lowry – Toronto’s best offensive player – has played only game due to a wrist injury. With him back in the fold, the Raptors should score much more efficiently.

Ibaka and Tucker will also help. They’re not defensive specialists who can get schemed off the floor in the playoffs. Their 3-point shooting – Ibaka (39% this season, 37% career), Tucker (36% this season, 35% career) – will space the floor for Lowry and DeRozan drives and provide efficient points.

Ibaka’s and Tucker’s outside shooting become major weapons when they play center and power forward, respectively. Though it’s just in 80 minutes, including only three with Lowry, here’s how Toronto has fared with Ibaka at center and Tucker at power forward, per NBAwowy!:

  • Offensive rating: 126.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.7
  • Net: +20.7

Overall, Toronto has scored 110.8 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka and Tucker on the floor, which would rank fifth among teams over the full season.

But the biggest gains come defensively.

Though he insists he was content coaching to his personnel, Casey long seemed uncomfortable coaching an offensive-oriented team. He never wasted an opportunity in press conferences to turn the focus to defense, even when asked about his excellent offense. And that was apparently the case behind the scenes, too.

“That’s all he cares about,” Lowry said. “He don’t care about nothing else but defense.”

Said DeRozan: “That’s what he’s always on us about, period. Nothing else, just strictly defense. And that’s what it’s always been.”

Now, with Ibaka and Tucker, Casey has a team that better fits his image. Toronto is defending well and playing with toughness.

The Raptors’ roster never befit a finesse team, but they too often slipped into playing like one. Ibaka and Tucker have rallied the team another direction.

“It’s contagious,” DeRozan said. “It’s something that everybody feed into, everybody love. And you have no choice but feed into it when guys bring that intensity every day.”

Ibaka and Tucker have played just 21 games each for Toronto, and Ibaka admitted he’s a little surprised by how quickly he and Tucker have clicked with their new teammates.

“But this group of guys, all they think about is winning,” Ibaka said. “So, when you play on a winning team, this happens.

“We’re ready to make big step in playoffs.”