TORONTO — Dwane Casey was asked whether Serge Ibaka is a good talker on the basketball court.
“In what language?” the coach said.
It was a very on-point joke. Ibaka, the Toronto Raptors power forward, set what might just be an unofficial NBA record the other night when, after his 23-point performance in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, he answered three consecutive questions in three different languages.
The clip of Ibaka, the 28-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, listening and answering questions in English, then French, then Spanish, was widely shared on social media over the weekend. Members of the Raptors press corps are now trying to figure out if they can ask Ibaka a question in Lingala, the fourth language in which he is fluent, to complete the sweep.
As impressive as his linguistic skills are, it’s what he can do on a basketball court that prompted the Raptors to acquire Ibaka before the trade deadline last season. And though the experiment didn’t immediately transform the Raptors in the way management might have hoped, a year later the difference his addition makes has become increasingly more evident. If the Raptors are going to make the kind of noise in these playoffs they keep saying they expect, then Ibaka will be a key part of it.
Ibaka, who first made his name in the league as a surprisingly agile 6-foot-10 defensive terror for the star-studded Oklahoma City teams that made it as far as the NBA Finals in 2012, immediately became the most playoff-tested player on the Toronto roster when he arrived from Orlando last February. But Kyle Lowry was injured soon after he arrived, and by the time the post-season opened last season, Ibaka, Lowry and the rest of the starters had barely played together.
Casey said on Monday that working Ibaka into their systems did not come quickly. “It was more difficult than we thought, especially when pressure hit,” the coach said, referring to in-game pressure, not the mental kind. “When you don’t know each other as well, it’s more difficult in those situations,” Casey said. “But this year is a different story for him because he knows the nuances.”
Ibaka said much the same thing. “Last year, I didn’t really have time to work with the team, with the guys, but now we know each other,” he said Monday, in English. “Kyle, he knows where I like to go. DeMar (DeRozan), he knows what I like to do. I know what Kyle and DeMar like to do now. When I play with (Jonas Valanciunas) in the paint, we understand each other more now. It feels more normal now.”
Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka at practice in preparation for Tuesday night’s Game 2 against the Washington Wizards in Toronto, Ont. on Monday April 16, 2018. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network
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Serge Ibaka works out during Monday’s practice in preparation for Game 2 against the Wizards on Tuesday …read more