OAKLAND —There was a time, not very long ago, when plenty of people around the league thought Serge Ibaka was washed. He had thrived in Oklahoma City when it looked like that team would be a powerhouse, but he struggled in Orlando and appeared to be a player in decline. There was still value, but enough to warrant giving him a three-year contract that started at $20 million?
For Toronto, yes. For Toronto in the NBA Finals, a resounding yes!
Ibaka has become a force in these NBA Finals, and his play in games 3 and 4 is a key reason Toronto is up 3-1 and on the cusp of a title.
About the only think Ibaka did wrong Friday night was wear tight pants then try to take a seat next to Kyle Lowry at the postgame podium.
Toronto can be all about the jokes right now. They’ve earned the right.
But they wouldn’t be here without Ibaka’s play in the past two games. He had six blocks in Game 3, his defense changed the course of that game. His presence as a rim protector continued in Game 4, but this time he added 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting — he was the sidekick Kawhi Leonard needed and was probably the third best player on the floor Friday night.
“When Serge is effective defensively is when he’s at his best,” Lowry said after he was done mocking Ibaka’s wardrobe. “I think the scoring just comes. We’re going to make sure he gets that pick-and-pop jump shot, he’s rolling.
“But when Serge is at his best, it’s on that defensive end. And when he brings that intensity and that fierceness, it’s kind of tough to stop him on both ends of the floor. It makes a big difference when he can do that.”
Ibaka and Lowry have natural pick-and-roll chemistry, where Ibaka can pop out or roll to the rim (but usually pop), and it works for them. That play shredded the Warriors defense in the second half.
“Man, I was just trying to play basketball out there, and we know they would try to take Kawhi away, double him,” Ibaka said. “So I just tried to play in the space. And also Kawhi and Kyle, all the guys, they did a great job to find me every time I was moving.”
“Once he starts blocking a couple shots then the offense comes and the rebounding comes and a putback here and there, and even his jump shot seems to come once he gets into the game defensively,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
“I think we kind of messed up our coverages a little bit on him, but you got to give him credit, he knocked some shots down,” Draymond Green said.
The Raptors have not been overwhelmed by the moment in their first Finals. Leonard and his icy demeanor gets most of the credit for that, but Nurse said the other veterans on the team — particularly Ibaka and Marc Gasol – also deserved some kudos. The younger players look to them.
What Ibaka has brought, as much as blocked shots or jump shots, is energy.
“When he’s involved with everything on defense, running the floor and also making open shots, I think just his energy overall [lifts the team],” Pascal Siakam said. “We definitely need his energy. I think he did a really good job tonight.”
If Ibaka brings that energy on Monday night in Toronto, he could have that ring.