Serge Ibaka usually takes so long to return to his locker after his post-game shower that most of his teammates are gone and many reporters have already left the Toronto Raptors’ locker room to make their deadlines.
But after his perplexing Game 2 performance in Toronto’s 128-110 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the media wasn’t going anywhere.
The Raptors’ starting power forward had contributed just two points on 0-for-5 shooting from the field on Thursday and been benched after just 12 minutes of play, already marred with a plus/minus of minus-10.
“I feel horrible,” were the first words from a disappointed Ibaka, as he stood in black dress pants and a red suit jacket, clenching his phone and keys in his hands, accepting that he was in for an uncomfortable few minutes before exiting.
“I didn’t play good enough. I didn’t play hard enough. I think that’s it,” uttered Ibaka, digesting the fact that his team had sunk into an 0-2 series hole against the reigning Eastern Conference champions.
The Congolese big man started the playoffs impressively, erupting for 23 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots in Toronto’s convincing Game 1 victory over the Washington Wizards.
He had been asked to the post-game podium on that April night – a place reserved for the night’s top performers – where he dazzled by answering questions in three of the four languages he speaks.
That was the star power forward the Raptors were expecting when they traded for him in February of 2017 – a guy they then re-signed to a three-year deal worth a reported US$65-million in July.
But that Serge Ibaka has gone missing recently.
Ibaka started Thursday’s Game 2 on a bad note, missing four shots in the first few minutes. He mustered a trip to the free throw line, where he made the only two points he would contribute all night.
He’d go on to nab six rebounds in his brief time on the floor, but the Raptors’ coaching staff appeared to have him on a short leash.
He started the third quarter but committed a turnover just seven seconds in when Kyle Korver stole the ball.
When Ibaka missed a 15-foot jumper a few seconds later, LeBron James grabbed the rebound and went the other way for a beautiful basket. With Cleveland dominating the boards and opening what would become an 18-5 game-changing run, the Raps sent C. J. Miles in to replace Ibaka just 1:43 seconds into the half. Ibaka would spend the rest of the night on the bench.
“We were searching for offence, searching for spacing, searching for a lot of things at that time. Serge hasn’t been himself. I don’t know what it is,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “We were just trying to make changes to mix it up.”
Social media lit up with criticism as the game went on, with Raptors fans calling for Ibaka to be benched, traded or at least woken up. Those posts were sprinkled throughout a flood of memes illustrating Cleveland’s uncanny dominance of the Raptors, including an asteroid with James’s face on it hurtling toward a valley of dinosaurs and the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square instead displaying LEBRONTO.
When the Raptors starters returned from their second break a few minutes into the fourth quarter, Ibaka was not among them. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and OG Anunoby were instead joined by Delon Wright.
“Serge wasn’t having his usual game, he was struggling,” said Casey. “So we were searching, just trying to find somebody, something to get faster, get some more points on the board in that situation.”
LeBron James would roll for 43 points while Kevin Love had 31 as the Cavs delivered a beatdown on Toronto.
“I’m just so disappointed in myself in that moment,” said Ibaka when asked what it felt like watching from the bench as his team kept unraveling. “It’s a moment where you start thinking a lot, ‘I wish I could be out there playing the best game I can to help my team.’ It sucks, man. It sucks.”
The Raptors need Ibaka’s defensive muscle, three-point shooting, rim-protection, floor spacing, rebounding, scoring and toughness, but they haven’t been getting much from him lately.
As such, he could find himself out of Toronto’s Game 3 lineup when the series shifts to Cleveland on Saturday night. The challenge for Casey’s staff, then, is finding a way to replace him without messing up the rotation?
He wasn’t great in Game 1 against the Cavs either, tallying nine points on 3-of-8 shooting, along with just two rebounds. Despite being known for his rim-protection, he hasn’t blocked a shot yet in the series and has missed all four of his three-point attempts.
“We’ll find some answers, whether we change the lineup, whatever it is, to keep the offense moving, keep the game moving, and keep the pace going,” said Casey.
It was the first time this season that the Raptors lost two straight home games. If they can’t find a way to salvage a win in Cleveland, that lopsided loss will have been their last game inside the ACC this season.
“It’s not just my shots. I didn’t play well. I don’t know how to describe it. I didn’t play good enough to help my team,” said Ibaka. “Mentally, I have to stay stronger, not give up and just be ready for the next game.”