By RACHEL BRADY
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
TORONTO -- After leading the Toronto Raptors in scoring, rebounds and blocks in the team's Game 1 playoff victory, Serge Ibaka emerged for his postgame interview in a designer suit and addressed reporters, seamlessly switching between three of the four languages he speaks.
The Congolese-Spanish forward replied fluently to questions from English, French and Spanish-speaking journalists about his performance during Saturday's game, an outing that included 23 points, 12 rebounds and two highenergy blocked shots. (Had the fashionable big man been asked a question in Lingala - a language spoken in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo - he could easily have answered that too.)
He had helped the Raptors to a 1-0 series lead over the Washington Wizards - despite the opposition clamping down on Toronto all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
This was the Serge Ibaka many had envisioned when the Raptors traded for him in February of last year. The Raps had acquired a 6foot-10 power forward who could add defensive muscle, protect the rim and shoot the three-ball. He'd be a third star to complement DeRozan and Lowry.
Ibaka only had a few months to get acclimated to his new teammates before the playoffs hit - not enough time to learn every detail of the schemes and establish good chemistry with every Raptor.
"It was more difficult than we thought, especially when pressure hit. When you don't know the nuances or know each other well, it's more difficult in those situations," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "We had to simplify some things last year just because of P.J. [Tucker] and Serge coming in [at last year's trade deadline], but that is no excuse. I probably didn't do a good job of integrating them in quick enough. This year is a different story for him, because he knows all the nuances."
A full season later, a more comfortable and effective Ibaka has emerged. He's now a key part of the top-seeded Raptors' effort to take the next step in this year's NBA playoffs. Casey sees a player who is a next-level defensive thinker, one who contributes with loads of unique input in film study. He is giving advice to teammates and working on communicating on defence.
"Now we know each other.
Kyle, he knows where I like to go.
DeMar, he knows what I like to do.
And I know what Kyle and DeMar like to do," Ibaka said.
"When I play with [Jonas Valanciunas] in the paint, we understand each other more now. It feels more normal now," Ibaka said.
The Raptors shot 16 threepointers in the Game 1 win, and Ibaka accounted for three of those on just four attempts, causing Wizards coach Scott Brooks to call him "one of the best - if not the best - big-man shooter in the league." Brooks will surely make Game 2 adjustments to better account for Ibaka, whom he had coached on the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2009-2016.
During that time, Ibaka had twice been the league's leading blocker and made the NBA all-defensive first team three times.
Back then, though, he wasn't shooting threes at the same clip he is now.
"He's a guy who gives us defensive versatility. He can shot-block, he can step out and shoot a three, he can dunk," Lowry said.
"He gives us something that we haven't had.
"We had Patrick Patterson, who could do some of the things, but not on the defensive end. He could shoot the ball as well as Serge, but Serge has given us that consistency to shoot the ball well and do it on the defensive end also."
In addition to his proficient three-point shooting, the Raptors can lean on the experience of a player who has been in 100 playoff games and gone all the way to the NBA finals - in 2012 with the Thunder.
"He's played in so many playoff games when he was at OKC, just the experience of being around a guy like [Russell] Westbrook and [James] Harden, [Kevin] Durant," Casey said.
"He's been through the fire.
You can't put a dollar value on that."
23 Team-high number of points scored by Raptors forward Serge Ibaka against the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series on Saturday.
12 Rebounds for Ibaka in Game 1.
Raptors forward Serge Ibaka rears up in front of the net to block Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal at Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS