Did Ibaka Just SERGE the Raptors to the Top of the East?
Written by: Jordyn Schoenfeld
Wow! Let’s recap the action packed last 24 hours in the Eastern Conference. Where do we start? Let’s start with the top power in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. They started off the year sizzling hot start of 20-6, then the first obstacle came in their title defense; J.R. Smith went down with a broken thumb and questions about overpaying him in the offseason and who will replace him in the lineup quickly came. They went with Deandre Liggins to replace him in the starting lineup and even though he is a tenacious defender, they learned that his inability to shoot from the perimeter was having negative effects on the offensive side of the ball. Opposing defenses would just ignore Liggins in the corner, bringing more help to the paint to cut off LeBron and Kyrie drives to the rim and live with Liggins shooting threes.
Teams led by LeBron James always finds ways to win and end up having an outstanding record, but the difference this year was how Kevin Love was playing. He was posting stats of 20 PPG and 11.1 RPG, shooting 38% from three and finally looked comfortable playing with the Cavs. He was playing better on the defensive end as well, moving his feet better, being in the right position to help more times than not and rebounding the ball at his best rate since 2013 (his last year with the Wolves). Many people might be not believe his defense is any better or he is only scoring this much because of LeBron, but that is simply not the case. He has the 8th best Plus/Minus in the NBA and the Cavaliers score more and defend better with him ON the floor. For the Cavs to compete with the Warriors, they will need this type of play from their All-Star power forward. Now that he is out for at least 6 weeks with a knee injury, we can certainly ask the question of if the Cavs have enough to not only repeat as Champions, but also getting back to the Finals for the 3rd straight year. While he is out, more of the offensive burden will fall onto the shoulders of LeBron, who is second in the NBA in minutes and has already been advised by basically everyone to rest more and save his miles for the playoffs and Kyrie Irving. Does this injury give a hope to other top teams in the East to bust through and head to the finals?
Toronto made a huge splash at the trade deadline, acquiring Serge Ibaka for Terrence Ross and a 2017 first round draft pick. This move is the one Raptor fans have been waiting for. Filling that need at power forward was a must to compete with the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Insert Ibaka into the starting lineup and now they have a power forward who can shoot (38% from three this year) and hopefully defend like he used to, even though stats show he has regressed on that end of the floor. Ibaka, this season is defending 7.2 shots at the rim per 36 minutes while allowing 52.9 percent FG%, which is way higher from the two years prior (to compare, Enes Kanter is allowing 10.1 shots per 36 minutes allowing 53.2 percent). Lowry continues to be underrated at his position even though he is ranked 3rd in real NBA Plus/Minus, DeRozan has had a career year in scoring averaging 27.9 PPG and his FG% is improving. He has put an emphasis on shooting from the midrange and his weakness from three is becoming less of a storyline. A problem that Toronto hopes Ibaka could help clean up is the awful pick and roll defense Jonas Valanciunas plays. He struggles to defend wings that can change pace, take advantage of mismatches and create contact. Raptors hope that with the addition of Ibaka, he can somewhat improve their pick and roll defense when they go against the likes of John Wall, Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. He even can switch onto LeBron in some situations and could hold his own.
The Ibaka trade also comes at the right time, being that the Raptors have been struggling as of late, posting a 10-13 record since January 1st. A big question mark for the Raptors is the type of play they get for DeMarre Carroll. Even though he is shooting 36% from three this year, which is still his lowest since the 2013 season, many teams would have no problem living with Carroll shooting threes over the course of a seven-game series. Also, if he is guarding LeBron, he will need to have the energy of keeping him out of the paint, making his shots challenging while also hitting threes to keep LeBron modest on defense or else he will be roaming all series long. The addition of Ibaka can also allow the Raptors to play Ibaka at the 5 with Patterson at the 4, DeRozan at the 3, and either Powell or Joseph alongside Lowry to close out games. This can be an important lineup against the Cavs, allowing them to switch pick and rolls and space the floor on the offensive end. It is way too early to say the Raptors can beat the Cavs in a playoff series but if they can turn it on at the right time, they have a chance, maybe the best out of all the other contenders.
If you are a basketball fan, there is a good chance you have tuned in to a Celtics game and was amazed at what you saw. Isaiah Thomas, who is 5’9”, is dominating a basketball game where he is by far the shortest player on the court. His offensive game is nearly flawless. If you go under a screen set for him, he is pulling up for a three. If you go over the screen, he is using the mismatch against a center to get to the rim with his sleek moves and ball handling. He has become an expert at drawing contact and getting to the line, where he attempts around 9 a game, which is 7th best in the NBA. His PPG has increased around 8 points and is the league leader scoring average in the fourth quarter. The Celtics have dealt with many injuries throughout the year, which has resulted them in using many different lineups and rotations. Jaylen Brown has been a nice surprise and has been playing well since he was inserted into the starting lineup. He is a slashing wing that can take advantage of smaller sized players guarding him. Crowder is quietly having a great season, shooting about 42% from three. Jerebko is a guy that any coach can trust to put into a game because of his ability to make the right play. They had a successful summer in signing Al Horford 4 year 113-million-dollar contract. He has been plagued with injuries throughout the season and hasn’t found his groove yet. His defensive rebounding woes have been a problem for this Celtics team, which rank in the bottom 5 of the league. He also hasn’t brought much rim protection to this team, which they rank in the bottom 10 as well.
These two stats could loom large later in the season, especially in a playoff matchup versus the Cavs. Playing against the Cavs, you need to protect the rim to deter LeBron and Kyrie from living at the rim and you need to be able to rebound the basketball to keep Tristian Thompson and Kevin Love off the offensive glass to give the Cavs extra possessions. Horford has especially been bad against the Cavs, posting a 6 point 1 rebound game earlier in the year. If Boston wants to compete with Cleveland, Isaiah Thomas must be extraordinary offensively and holding up his own on the defensive end. Horford needs to be effective on the glass and protect the paint, while attacking the rim and hitting midrange jumpers. The supporting cast of the Celtics must be hitting their threes, defending well and help with defensive rebounding.
After starting the season off very slow, 7-13 through the first 20 games of the year, they have turned it on and haven’t looked back. A big part of that success is a mixture of a few things. First, John Wall is an absolute stud, dishing out a career high in points, assists, steals and FG%. He has worked himself back in shape form offseason knee surgery and he is the engine to this offense. He pushes it in fast break putting pressure on the opponent’s defense, causing them to scramble to find their man, which leads to many open looks from three for Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. If opposing defenders duck under a screen set for John, he has worked that pullup jumper into his game and if he’s hitting that, not much you can do. Wizards also set screens for John very high allowing him to be at full speed against a helpless forward or center. Beal is also having arguably his best season as a pro yet. Shooting 40% from three is phenomenal and gives Wall space to drive and do his thing. Beal is also shooting more threes than ever this year, about 42.5% of his shots are threes up from 34% from last year. With the amount of the threes Beal is taking, this has opened his attacking game. He is averaging more assists, free throws and drives this season and can even handle the ball in pick and roll situations. Then there is Otto Porter. This guy has become a knockdown shooter and is playing himself into a max contract. He is shooting around 46% form three way up from 37% last season. You simply can’t leave this guy anymore and if the Wizards have any chance against the Cavs, Porter will have a lot to do with it. He will have the assignment of guarding LeBron but he must find energy to keep making shots and being aggressive on the offensive end. Someone that can be an X factor in the series as well is Markieff Morris. He can switch onto wings with little time on the shot clock and hold up his own. He also can step out and shoot the three giving Wall and Beal even more space on the floor, and if a wing is ever stuck on him on a switch, he will make you pay. Another important factor is the matchup of Wall vs Irving. Wall must attack Irving on offense, getting to the paint and forcing help so he can get his shooters going. He also must keep Kyrie in check because he can singlehandedly win a game for the Cavs, which can be pivotal in a playoff series. A matchup of the Wizards and Cavs would be nothing short of exciting, with many great players and a lot of offensive firepower.