There is certainly no shortage of interesting storylines this NBA season. From Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors hitting their stride heading into the playoffs to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their quest to reach their third straight NBA Finals, all the way to the late surge of the Portland Trail Blazers to set up a date in the first round of the playoffs with the aforementioned Warrior. However, there’s probably another Serge that should be pointed out—the one in Toronto.
Serge Ibaka very well may be the missing ingredient for a team that has seemingly been on the cusp of greatness for quite some time. And now, after playing more than 20 games in a Raptors uniform, he will finally have an opportunity to try to build some chemistry with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.
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“We’re playing for something right now,” Serge Ibaka said in his first press conference with the assembled media in Toronto back on February 15. For the first time, he addressed the media as a member of the Raptors and admitted that it was refreshing to be on a contending team once again.
Ibaka spoke about looking forward to the future and trying to build on the success the team has had over the past few seasons, where they have won 48, 49 and 56 games, respectively.
As we enter the playoffs, most seem fixated with the Boston Celtics and their rise toward the top of the Eastern Conference. Entering play on April 9, the Celtics trail the Cavs by a single game in the loss column and have captured the imaginations of just about everyone.
Still, in it all, the Raptors are the biggest threat to the defending Easter Conference champion.
After missing 21 games, Kyle Lowry valiantly returned to the lineup with a 27-point, 10-rebound, five-assist effort. He led the Raptors in scoring in an important 105-102 victory over the Detroit Pistons, but he did something more important to the championship aspirations of the Raptors—he played with Ibaka.
Due to wrist surgery, Lowry missed 21 games. In his absence, the team managed to go 14-7, which is obviously quite good. What’s most interesting about the stretch, however, is that Ibaka and Lowry had zero court time together. Ibaka’s debut for the Raptors was on February 24, the club’s first game after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Lowry was nursing his right wrist injury and was conceivably planning on having surgery. After missing the club’s first two games after the All-Star break (Ibaka’s first two games), on February 27, the Raptors announced that Lowry would have surgery to remove loose bodies in his wrist, with the hope being that he would return for the playoffs.
In the end, Lowry ended up missing 21 games, spanning the early going of Ibaka’s tenure in Toronto. The two, however, seem to be a natural basketball fit, even if Ibaka, as many believe, is on the downside of his career. Such a thought is rare for a 27-year-old player, but it should be pointed out that there have been persistent questions about Ibaka and his true age. Coincidentally, Bismack Biyombo was at the center of a bit of an age controversy, although the evidence pointed to him correctly being reported as an 18-year-old draft prospect back in 2011.
Still, over the years, there have been persistent questions about the accuracy of the reported ages of a number of athletes originating from the African continent, most notably Dikembe Mutombo. For the most part, it may seem like water under the bridge, but Ibaka’s apparently decreasing athleticism gives credence to those conspiracy theorists that hold true to the belief that he’s actually a few years older than his reported age (27).
In the NBA, we often see players that are unhappy or in bad situations turn back the clock once their surroundings change. We saw it with Pau Gasol when he left the Los Angeles Lakers for the Chicago Bulls and, to a lesser extent, we saw Rajon Rondo reemerge as a solid distributor during his lone season in Sacramento. Each of the two was thought to have been over the hill, but they proved to still have some tread on their tires.
The optimists were hoping (and are probably still hoping) that Ibaka proves to be similar in that regard. However, since relocating to Toronto, his per-game averages are almost identical to what he produced during his 56-game career as a member of the Orlando Magic.
Regardless as to whether he’s peaked or not, however, Ibaka can provide the Raptors tremendous value as a rim protector (despite averaging just 1.5 blocks per game, a lot is to be said for the “intimidation” factor), as well as a shooter at the power forward position. As a Raptor, thus far, he is connecting on 40 percent of his 4.5 three-point attempts per game. For reference, Channing Frye is currently the only listed power forward in the league who is connecting on greater than 40 percent of his three-point looks, with Ryan Anderson a shade below. That Ibaka could play center, in spurts, gives him tremendous value as a floor spacer, even if his athleticism is declining.
Coming at a relatively cheap price, Raptors team president Masai Ujiri made a wise decision in obtaining Ibaka. For the Raptors, the ceiling is a bit higher. As the club closes its 2016-17 season, they have yielded a lot of the attention and fanfare that they have been the recipient of in past years to the Celtics and, to a lesser extent, the Washington Wizards.
As we have seen time and time again, however, it’s not always about the team that gets the most attention. Often, it’s about the one that goes unnoticed and toils while others steal the headlines. So as the playoff picture out East begins to take shape and the Celtics and Raptors appear to be on a collision course for a second-round playoff matchup, it may end up being moot asking whether or not the Celtics can best the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.
We should be asking that question about the Raptors.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.