Serge Ibaka was hungry.
Standing outside a restaurant in the city of Brazzavile in the Congo, a young Ibaka saw people dressed well and enjoying themselves, but he hadn’t eaten in a long time. With his eyes growing bigger and his appetite following suit, he plotted his next move. But as he poked and prodded his way into stealing some food, employees found him, beat him up and chased him out.
“Go find a job,” they said.
Little did they know that this tall, lanky kid was just 11-years-old. That he was indeed just a boy. This is the Ibaka no one knew.
But sometimes ignorance is bliss, and as children are won’t to do and dream big dreams, the one thing he did was never give up. So, now he hosts a cooking show on YouTube where he serves up whatever he wants and helps lead a Toronto Raptors franchise to the brink of its first NBA title.
As the team have left many asking on this dream playoff run, though, how did he get here?
Ibaka’s journey began with getting drafted 24th overall in 2008 out of Spain before coming over to Oklahoma City in 2009, where few places could have been more different than Brazzaville. The people, the food, the language, he was going to have to adjust in every which way at the tender age of 19. Fortunately for him, he had someone to share a new beginning with. Rex Kalamian, now an assistant to Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers after serving as a member of Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto the past three seasons, started with the Thunder the same summer.
“We were staying in the same hotel, relocating at the same week,” Kalamian recalled. “I don’t think his English was anywhere near where it is now, we were still communicating a little bit in Spanish, a little bit in English, he was just kind of new to everything and the city of Oklahoma.”
On a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, though, Ibaka needed to read the room of a team transitioning from 23 wins to 50 and turn the pages quickly. There wasn’t going to be time to ease into anything.
“He caught on really, really quickly. That first summer we had him, he was getting acclimated to the NBA game, the speed of it, the strength of it, it took him about a year to figure out what was going on in the NBA but the one thing he could do really well, he developed a work ethic, and he’s probably had it his entire life, where he would come in early and shoot, stay late and shoot and work on his body.”
After an impressive first season defensively for the Thunder that included a seven-block game against the L.A. Lakers in the first round, the team still felt Ibaka had some maturing to do physically. A turning point came when Jeff Green was traded to the Boston Celtics at the 2010-11 trade deadline, returning Kendrick Perkins and allowing Ibaka to play the four-spot.
“Mark Bryant, the assistant coach there spent a tremendous amount of time working with Serge,” Kalamian said. “When we traded for Perkins, they worked so well off of each other, Perkins had just worked in Boston where he had worked in tandem with KG [Kevin Garnett] and he brought some knowledge and some swagger and some confidence and put that into Serge.”
While there’s only so much that can be done in the race to the finish line after the trade deadline, it was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season where the fruits of Perkins’ labour and Ibaka’s work ethic came to bear. He led the league in shot blocking with 3.7 per game and finished runner-up to Tyson Chandler for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. The Thunder went to the Finals, before it all came crashing down.
Ibaka averaged just seven points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 42.7 percent from the field, all lows compared to the regular season. Apart from one standout five-block night in a Game 2 loss, he managed five blocks in total over the other four games before watching LeBron James win his first NBA title with the Miami Heat.
“One thing he is is tremendously prideful, he really wants to do the right thing for his team and when he doesn’t play well, it disturbs him,” Kalamian said. “He doesn’t just go on to the next game, he wants to figure out why he didn’t play well, what he can do better and he gets in the gym and he works at it. He’s played a lot of basketball in his years overseas, FIBA basketball, NBA basketball, playoff basketball, he’s got a lot of experience under his belt.”
The Thunder juggernaut steadily came apart at the seams, most devastatingly falling short of another opportunity to play for it all after failing to close out a 3-1 lead against the Warriors. Losing James Harden was one thing, but Durant was the knockout blow. Ibaka was shipped to Orlando where it was never a long-term fit for the Magic with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon on board, and soon the Congolese star made his way to Toronto for a fresh start.
The Raptors were trying to get over their own hump, King James, and get to the NBA Finals for the first time and Ibaka was looked upon as the third piece to slot alongside Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The belief was that he could provide the tertiary scoring the team lacked and toughness at the rim. Instead, back-to-back sweeps followed at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, including a noticeable gut check moment for Ibaka in Game 2 of the 2018 series.
He stood in front of his locker after the game disgusted with himself, embarrassed even, knowing that all the hard work over the course of the regular season to earn home court against the Cavaliers in a playoff series had gone to waste as they trailed 0-2 heading to Cleveland.
“I didn’t play well,” he said after Game 2. “I don’t know how to describe it but I didn’t play good, didn’t help my team ... it sucks.”
Ibaka missed all five of his field goal attempts and never saw the court again after the first two minutes. Such was Dwane Casey’s predicament over the lack of production at the power forward spot that he turned to C.J. Miles. That ended about as poorly as the idea sounds.
The position Ibaka once owned was no longer his. The league’s tectonic plates had shifted, and while he did, too, by adding a three-point shot and learning to pick-and-pop from the midrange, it took him away from his natural habitat. Playing alongside Jonas Valanciunas may have been plentiful in talent to win out in the regular season, but as the Raptors had proven as a team time and time again, the playoffs are just different.
“After playoffs last year, I only took two weeks and then I had to get back to work,” Ibaka said at Media Day. “I spent four months working hard ... just tried to watch film from last year’s playoffs. I’m really excited for this season because I’m coming with a fresh mind, try to let go what happened last year and try to focus on this year.
“Last year, most of the time I had to space the floor for my teammates, but this year I spoke with coach, he wants me to be a little more aggressive in the paint, get offensive rebounds and he wants me to protect the paint more and that’s something I love to do and I’m really excited for that role.”
Ibaka upped his field goal attempts at the rim by 12 percent, and after 36 percent of his shots came from three-point range last season, that number was cut in half this season. Even though the volume increased, his field goal percentage at the rim improved from 68 to 73 percent and he maintained the midrange at a healthy 50 percent. On the glass, he went from the 47th percentile in claiming defensive boards off field goal misses to the 63rd percentile this season, and on the offensive end he improved from the 17th percentile to 52nd. Those are numbers he hasn’t produced since his early days in Oklahoma City.
He embraced a time share at the centre position while Valanciunas was around, then adjusted to a full-time bench role when Marc Gasol came over. The consistency has waned, but the impact he has on the team’s success has shone through in the biggest moments. Game 4 in Philadelphia and Friday night in Oakland are the standouts, but Toronto is now 8-0 this post-season when Ibaka scores at least 10 points. Off the court, he was the one to inspire his teammates when the Bucks took a 2-0 series lead in the East Finals.
“Oh, man, just hard work,” Ibaka said on Friday night, wearing a leather jacket and pants his podium partner Kyle Lowry thought were too tight for him to be able to sit. “We put a lot of work and we believe in us, but one of the good things about us is our toughness, mind toughness. We’ve been getting better and better each round, first round, second round, third round, and now we are here.
”We always try to be ready, even the guys who don't play, they come out there, put in work. Even myself and Marc. When you play less minutes, you come the next day, you come the next day, you put in work. So I think that's one of the things about us. Also you see each night it's different guys, so you always try to be ready.”
He’s averaging 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 19 minutes per game in the Finals, not too dissimilar from his maiden trip with the Thunder. But, perhaps the biggest difference is that this isn’t the first time he’s been here, nor is it the first time he’s gone up against the Warriors, and the failures have only served to make him hungrier.
Before the playoffs began, Ibaka spoke about going back to that Brazzaville restaurant and seeing the man who once chased him out many years ago. That man was nearly brought to tears, then asked for a picture.
The boy, is now a man.
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