OAKLAND, Calif. — Survival against Kawhi Leonard, less a basketball player these days than a cataclysmic event, requires comprehensive effort and preparation. It’s not enough to outflank Kawhi with some other superstar scorer, because his own creation has proven so immutable. The runs that put away other teams seem to land against Toronto like body blows: damaging, sure, but never in themselves overwhelming. What hits the Raptors absorb they tend to deal back in kind. It seems that the only way to beat them is to trip them up—not only by forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands, but by then running interference on his teammates to undermine what they do best.
Golden State can win with Leonard scoring big, proven by the fact that they already have. The trouble comes when Leonard gets his, Kyle Lowry plays tremendously, and some other Raptor cuts in to alter the game. Or, to put in terms more familiar to the Warriors after their 105-92 Game 4 loss: It isn’t the 36 from Leonard that kills you, but the 20 points in 22 minutes from Serge Ibaka.
“He was great tonight, man, and he usually gives you all of it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Once he starts blocking a couple shots, and the offense comes, and the rebounding comes, and a putback here and there. Even his jump shot seems to come once he gets into the game defensively with a blocked shot or two.” This sort of chain reaction holism has always been a part of Ibaka’s game, though in recent years it was easy to mistake it for some alarming decline. As recently as the 2018 playoffs, Ibaka looked effectively unplayable against elevated competition. Some bigs just aren’t cut out to space the floor as their primary function; when your entire role can be reduced to whether your shot is falling, the entire enterprise can feel awfully fragile.
Credit Nurse with seeing Ibaka for who he really was. Throughout this season, Ibaka spent less time hovering around the three-point line (he attempted his fewest three-pointers in the past four years) and more finding his intermediate game. Simply being allowed to exist in spaces he’s always found more comfortable revitalized his game. It’s curious that he seems more athletic at 29 than he did at 27, but basketball is nothing if not a curious game. A player’s complexion can change with the subtlest shift. New circumstances can disprove what once seemed so clear.
On Friday night, Ibaka found himself at the exact intersection of a number of critical factors. Pressure against Leonard and Lowry naturally put Ibaka on the spot. The downward spiral of DeMarcus Cousins continued, particularly as it regards to his defensive positioning and inability to cover ground. The state of Golden State’s roster—and its growing desperation—meant that Shaun Livingston had to play big in some lineups. Big minutes and high, hard usage finally seemed to catch up with Stephen Curry, resulting in some spacier defense than usual and some awkward rotations as a result. In so many ways, the Warriors have experienced a gradual breakdown of the systems they rely on to win, and in so many cases, it was Ibaka who punctuated their failings. A sequence like this should not be possible in an NBA Finals game:
“Man, I was just trying to play basketball out there,” Ibaka said. “We know they would try to take Kawhi away, double him. 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.”
Toronto doesn’t ask Ibaka to be who he isn’t. There is no delusion of him masquerading as Draymond Green, making difficult reads at full speed. It’s enough for Ibaka to make himself available, and either make a move or give up the ball—so long as he stays engaged. Sometimes, it’s enough to work as an outlet. At other junctures, the Raptors need him to mix it up inside, scrapping on the glass for offensive rebounds.
Tactically speaking, the Warriors haven’t regarded Ibaka with much respect. So much of the way they’ve chosen to defend is predicated on the idea that Toronto won’t move the ball quickly enough when needed, and that if they do, it will land with players like Ibaka who can then be contained. It’s not an unfair analysis, though it can lead a defense, psychologically, to take Ibaka for granted. A player of his skill set cannot go 9-for-12 from the field without both working the angles and finding some cover in their own limitations.
“Well, 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. “Seems like every game it's somebody else. You know, Danny Green in Game 3, then we completely take him out of the game tonight, and [then] Serge.”
There’s no better sign of a healthy team ecosystem. In some ways, the Raptors’ mid-season acquisition of Marc Gasol was one of the best things possible for Ibaka. With it came a move to the bench, but more importantly, a diffusion of responsibility. If it wasn’t Ibaka’s night, Gasol and Pascal Siakam would ensure that Toronto would always have some alternative. Some players just need the relief in knowing that they are allowed a quiet game. It’s a distinction that makes Ibaka closer to a role player than any kind of supporting star, though one that seems to fit him more comfortably. The Ibaka we saw in Game 4 was active but loose, involved but not central. He was exactly who he should be.
“He was assertive from the get-go,” Gasol said. “He shot. He’s doing what he’s doing. He’s crashing the boards. He’s putting rebounds back in the basket. He’s being aggressive.” It might all start, as the Raptors posit, with defense. Ibaka is never more pleased than when turning some opponent away, and in the past two games has done so eight times. Ibaka actually has length enough on the perimeter to make Curry hesitate when pulling up, throwing off his shooting cadence. It’s that same length inside that penalizes the Warriors for making the right play—invalidating their passes to DeMarcus Cousins or Alfonzo McKinnie by flying in to deny their attempts.
Yet even the energy that comes from those plays couldn’t fully explain why Ibaka is having his best offensive rebounding season in years, or how he shot 9-for-12 from the field in the most important game of his career. Time has brought him full circle. The measure of the younger Ibaka was always his activity level, but over time that activity alone seemed not to be enough. He needed poise. When his game calmed down, its tempering came at the cost of Ibaka’s best qualities. Contrary to what it seemed, he needed more access points to make his mark on the game, not fewer. It all coalesced with this Raptors team, just as it has for so many of his teammates. Toronto has never looked more comfortable in its own skin. For Ibaka, that feels like finding peace in the player he was always supposed to be.