Serge Ibaka had yet to address his teammates Wednesday about the fight that cost him three games.
But head coach Nick Nurse was asking the Toronto Raptors to stand behind their quick-tempered centre.
“The message I sent to our guys was, ‘Let’s stick behind him, and show him some love,’ ” Nurse said. “He’s an important part of our team.”
Ibaka, who received a three-game suspension for fighting with Marquese Chriss of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, was at Biosteel Centre on Wednesday but was one of several veterans who sat out practice for rest. He also declined to speak to media.
The NBA said Ibaka’s suspension was based on instigating the fight, throwing a punch at Chriss and his prior history of fighting. It’s the third suspension for Ibaka since 2017 for throwing punches. Ibaka also was handed a one-game team suspension in 2017 for an altercation with a Raptors staff member.
“It’s not great that this happens. Obviously it’s not great, the ramifications of the punishment,” Nurse said. “And it’s not great from the big picture. [Controlling his emotions] is something he’s done really well this year, emotionally, just in general. He’s just had a great season. He’s been a good teammate and all of that stuff.
“It’s a little bit of a bummer that he’s got to go through it and we’ve got to go through it. It’s just another little thing we’ve got to handle and move on from it and learn from it if we can and look at the positives.”
The positives are some enforced rest for Ibaka ahead of what could be a long playoff run and more playing time for Marc Gasol, who’s bounced up and down between the starting lineup and second unit since the Raptors acquired him in a deal at last month’s trade deadline.
Nurse joked that at least he wouldn’t be “losing sleep” over which one – Gasol or Ibaka – would start.
Ibaka will miss Thursday’s game against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday’s game in Detroit, and next Monday’s game against the visiting New York Knicks.
It’s an obvious opportunity for Gasol to jell with his new teammates. Averaging just 22 minutes a game compared with the 33 minutes he’d been playing with Memphis, his chemistry in Toronto remains a work in progress.
“You take two steps forward and one back and you just stay with it and be patient and don’t get frustrated, which could be easy at times,” Gasol said.
Gasol needs an extended run, said Nurse, to “get unleashed.”
“He’s making a lot of good decisions. He’s getting to a lot of spots. He’s not finishing a lot of things we think he can finish, even the three-ball. A lot of post moves he’s making fairly easily, and they’re not going in,” Nurse said. “Maybe we can get him a little bit more rhythm and a little bit more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more.”
Canadian Chris Boucher will see more playing time, and the Raptors will use Pascal Siakam a bit at centre as well, Nurse said.
The coach wondered aloud whether the ugly Ibaka incident could have been avoided.
“It isn’t like, ‘Jeez, I told him before the game not to do that,’ ” Nurse said. “That’s not really the way it works. We’ve just got to try to keep an eye on it. I always look at, with everything, what was my role in that.
“Could I have done something different? I called that play [a full-court inbounds pass to Ibaka with a second to play in the third quarter],” Nurse said. “I wish I hadn’t have called that play and just eaten it. But that’s just not our style. We just don’t do it that way.”
Monday’s ugly loss also saw Kyle Lowry and Danny Green suffer ankle injuries. Nurse summed up their status as “not great,” but said they should be okay to play Thursday.
It wasn’t all bad news at Raptors practice Wednesday. Kawhi Leonard, who sat out most of last season with a quadriceps injury, said managing his load in the regular season has him feeling healthier than he has in a long time.
“We’ve been doing a great job of making sure nothing flares up or gets out of control,” Leonard said. “And this has been great, I’m just happy that I’m able to play. Played only nine games last year, so able to get up to the games I’ve played now is amazing, I feel good and we have something to look forward to.”
Backup guard Fred VanVleet, who hasn’t played since suffering ligament damage in his left thumb last month, is also close to returning.
“Hopefully in this next three-game stretch we’ll see him,” Nurse said. “He’s out there practising today. It wasn’t a real contact practice today but he did everything with the team and he’s looking good.”