Any NBA team studying how to face the Toronto Raptors is faced with a task that has grown exceedingly complicated.
When it comes to preparing for the Raptors, opponents can’t afford to focus solely on limiting all-stars Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam are also causing plenty of headaches with their evolving play.
The Raptors, 11-1, are the only remaining one-loss team in the NBA. Now back at home after sweeping a four-game West Coast trip, they sit atop the league after the best start in franchise history. Lowry is averaging 11.3 assists a game – 135 in total – both of which lead the league. Leonard has played in just eight games, but averaged 26 points, eight rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals in those games, fitting right in with his new squad. So it’s natural to zone in on those two.
If opponents, bogged down in the hectic churn of their NBA schedules, don’t strategize much beyond those two stars, it’s easy to get burned by the surging play of Ibaka and Siakam.
Ibaka was mediocre at times the past two seasons, but opponents suddenly have to take another look at him. He has thrived in his move to the centre spot from power forward this season. The 17.7 points and 7.9 rebounds he’s averaging are both highs in his nine-year NBA career. The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Congolese is excelling with more time in the paint and posing defensive challenges for opposing centres with his athleticism. Ibaka and Toronto’s 7-foot centre, Jonas Valanciunas, now split the position, so they’re not on the floor at the same time, which has created more space.
“Yeah yeah, I like it. I’m getting more comfortable,” Ibaka said. “It makes it easier having only one big and we got four guards outside, it opens the floor for everybody.”
Ibaka says Lowry’s stellar ball-distribution is making things easier on everyone. Ibaka is no longer living so often beyond the arc. He was attempting 3.9 three-pointers a game last season and only 6.4 two-pointers. This year, he’s attempting 2.3 from deep and 10.2 two-pointers, and finding far more success. He and Siakam are both top five in the NBA right now in two-point shooting percentage. Ibaka had a career-high 34 points last week in Los Angeles.
“You have to choose which one you do the best. Not everybody can do everything at a high level. So you choose the one you think can help your game,” Ibaka said “Myself, sometimes I like to get this one in the paint early to get myself confidence to keep going on. I’m not gonna try to force to look for threes, but if the three is open, I’m gonna shoot it.”
The average 7-foot opposing centre is finding it tough to chase Ibaka around.
“There are not a lot of [centres] that can guard him,” Siakam said of Ibaka. “He can step out in the mid-range and also to [small forward], and that makes it hard for a lot of [centres] to guard him. Also, a lot of [power forwards] are like smalls, so it’s probably hard for him to keep up with them, but having him as a [centre] is great for him. There’s better spacing and he is able to bring the big out.”
Siakam, now in his third NBA season, has been an enormous source of energy for this year’s Raptors. He’s no longer the raw talent you saw mostly with the bench mob. This year, Siakam has started 11 of Toronto’s 12 games and he’s averaging career-bests with 12.5 points and seven rebounds.
The Raptors are home for the next three games. Saturday, they play host to the 4-8 New York Knicks in a 3 p.m. tipoff. The early start could be challenging for a team just returned home from a week-long trip out West that featured four night games in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. The New Orleans Pelicans visit Monday, while the Detroit Pistons come to town on Wednesday in what will likely be an emotional game. The Pistons are led by former Raptors coach Dwane Casey.