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The Raptors' bench brigade is finding its groove

Raptors guard Norman Powell controls the ball as Cavaliers centre Tristan Thompson defends during Thursday’s game.

Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

As Fred VanVleet started to make his way over toward the media gaggle who wanted to rehash his starring role in dismantling the Cleveland Cavaliers the previous night, he was intercepted by teammate Serge Ibaka.

"MVP," Ibaka joshed playfully with the 23-year-old Toronto Raptors point guard who smiled broadly as the pair then slapped hands after practice was concluding at the BioSteel Centre early Friday afternoon.

The most valuable player reference was suitable for VanVleet, who led an impressive Raptors bench brigade, scoring a career-high 22 points as Toronto went on to humble LeBron James and the Cavaliers 133-99 at Air Canada Centre on Thursday.

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The MVP tag could also be applied to Ibaka, as Toronto's most volatile player, a 6-foot-10 power forward whose short fuse has not done him any favours this season.

Ibaka was not able to play in the Cleveland slap-down, serving a one-game suspension levied by the league after he and James Johnson of the Miami Heat took a couple of swings at each other during a game on Tuesday.

With point guard Kyle Lowry also sidelined for the Cleveland game because of a bruised tailbone, it was remarkable how easily the Raptors were still able to dominate the defending Eastern Conference champions.

It was the second time in less than a month that Ibaka's temper has gotten the better of him. In late December, after a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ibaka was involved in some sort of altercation with a team staff member that caused the Raptors to suspend him for one game.

Ibaka took to his Twitter account on Thursday to apologize for his latest indiscretion.

"Sometimes during a game my emotions can lead to bad reactions and I'm not proud of that," Ibaka wrote. "This is why I want to apologize to the Raptors organization, the fans, the staff and my teammates for my suspension."

With Toronto playing defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors at the ACC on Saturday night, the team will welcome Ibaka back to the starting lineup. His length and three-point shooting capabilities will come in handy against a ridiculously talented Warriors outfit, sporting an NBA best record of 33-9 heading into their game Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Raptors coach Dwane Casey said he is not concerned by Ibaka's fiery mindset.

"I had a good talk with him this morning," Casey said. "He understands. You're going to have some teams who maybe try to bait him into doing different things and he's got to be level-headed.

"But at the same time, he can't lose his fire."

Casey said that he does not want any player on his team to back down from any opponent when testosterone levels start to rise during a game. "You got to be a man and take care of yourself," is how he put it.

But in the next breath, Casey seemed to acknowledge that Ibaka needs a little more self-control when it comes to his conduct. "We need Serge," the coach said. "We need his three-point shooting more so than his boxing skills."

Saturday's game marks the midway point of the regular season for the Raptors who, with a record of 29-11, have already set a franchise record for the most wins in an opening half.

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The team's new-found reliance on the three-point shot along with a deep bench anchored by the likes of VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam can be credited with Toronto's strong showing so far.

Toronto's backups were front and centre in the Cleveland win as DeMar DeRozan, one of the NBA's top snipers with an average of 25 points a game, netted a rather inconsequential 13 points. Most of the heavy offensive lifting was provided by the bench, which accounted for 76 of Toronto's 133 total with four players – VanVleet, Powell, Poeltl and Siakam all scoring in double figures.

"It makes my job a lot easier," DeRozan said of the bench contribution. "It's on me to go out there, to understand how teams are going to play me, for me to understand how I can make my teammates excel at the highest level. [The Cleveland game] was a prime example of that.

"It makes the game a lot more fun for me when I don't have to worry about trying to score. I can find just as much enjoyment in passing the ball as well."

DeRozan finished with a game-high eight assists.

As for VanVleet and his continued solid contributions this season, DeRozan said he is not surprised. He said the second-year player carries himself with a maturity and a hard-nosed mentality not usually associated with a player so young.

"He's a little tough firecracker for sure," DeRozan said.

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