Less has turned out to be more for Raptors big man Serge Ibaka

Less has turned out to be more for Raptors big man Serge Ibaka
ORLANDO, FLA.—In a reflective moment before an important playoff game, Serge Ibaka contemplates one of the craziest and most difficult seasons of his career.

He has been a part-time starter, then a full-time starter and now a permanent backup with the Raptors, trying to adapt to the different circumstances while coming up with one of the best seasons of his career.

It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been enjoyable.

“Mentally, it was not easy because it was not something I was prepared for,” Ibaka said before the Raptors went through their final preparations for Game 3 of their best-of-seven series with the Orlando Magic on Friday night. “The reason why I had one of the best seasons of my career is because it challenged me to play my best basketball so I can help my team.”

If there is a short way to describe Ibaka’s up-and-down season, it is that less can be more.

At 27.2 minutes per game, he played less than he has in all but one of his 10 NBA seasons. His 51 starts in 74 games were the fewest since his second season with Oklahoma City in 2010-11. But he averaged 15.0 points per game this season, the second highest production of his career, and 8.1 rebounds, a career best.

Ibaka began the season sharing the starting centre role with Jonas Valanciunas. He started all 25 games when Valanciunas was out after thumb surgery, then ceded the starting job to Marc Gasol for the final 15 games of the regular season and these playoffs.

Up and down, for certain.

Fun? Not so much.

“I wouldn’t put it that way, to be honest with you,” he said. “This season, it was not easy personally but I’ve got to say that those moments are what brings out the best of us.

“The challenging moments are where you put yourself in a position ... are you going to give up or are you going to keep fighting? At the end of the day, it was good for me because I’m here, this is my seventh playoffs of my career, playing on one of the best teams, so it’s a great opportunity for me to keep enjoying basketball.”

It’s actually the ninth playoff of Ibaka’s career and, regardless of his role, he will have a vital job to do to help determine how far the Raptors go. With the likelihood increasing each day that forward OG Anunoby will be out an extended period after having an emergency appendectomy, Ibaka represents the only big man coming off the bench for Toronto. He only averaged 21.5 minutes in Toronto’s first two games against the Magic but had 8.0 rebounds per game. He’s combined with Gasol to take Orlando’s all-star centre Nikola Vucevic out of any substantial role in the first two games.

Having been through 111 post-season games, 102 as a starter, Ibaka knows reputations are cemented by playoff play.

“The good thing about the playoffs is it’s the playoffs,” he said. “The regular season, you can forget about it, the season is finished. (Playoffs) gives players the opportunity to be on a winning team, let you play for something — always trying, always challenging — and that’s what brings out the best of us in sport.”

Despite the travails of the regular season, Ibaka has become a much more open book in is third season with the Raptors, more public and more engaging. He has YouTube channel where he hosts a cooking/interview bit that has almost a cultlike following. His charitable foundation has become more active raising funds in the Toronto area and his social media presence is giving people a look at him they didn’t get in his first season-and-a-half in Toronto.

And now it’s time to make a greater imprint on the court.

“It’s a fun time of year and fun time for my colleagues,” he said. “So just focus on playing hard and enjoy it.”
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