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NBA Sunday: The Ibaka-Lowry Raptors

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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.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.