CHICAGO – Judging by their performance against the Bulls at United Center in a 105-94 loss Tuesday night, the Toronto Raptors need more than Serge Ibaka to be taken seriously as Eastern Conference contenders.
A healthy Chris Bosh, a 24-year-old Vince Carter and prime Hakeem Olajuwon come to mind.
Admittedly, Toronto looking horrible against the Bulls is one of the league’s prevailing matchup quirks – Chicago has won 11 in a row in the series dating back to 2013. It’s possible, too, that the Raptors exhaled too fully earlier in the day upon learning that GM Masai Ujiri had dialed up 9-1-1 on their behalf. Ibaka’s response time in reporting from Orlando after being swapped for Toronto’s Terrence Ross and the lesser of two 2017 first-round draft picks left them exposed to their 11th loss in the past 15 games.
At 32-24, they’re now in fifth place in the conference, harsh reality for the presumptive “second-best team in the East” for so much of the season’s first half.
Toronto has 26 games left -- home against Charlotte Wednesday in which Ibaka might play, the rest after the All-Star break -- to crawl over at least two rivals in the standings to forestall as long as possible a best-of-seven showdown with the defending champs from Cleveland.
“I don’t know how many months that is or days that is, but [26 games] that’s not a lot of games,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “That can go bad in a heartbeat.
“We’re playing really bad basketball. It’s crazy right now.”
Adding Ibaka should have given the Raptors a bounce, even before he actually joined them. The sense in the hours after the trade was that much of what has ailed Toronto in this four-week skid would be cleaned up by acquiring the tough, defensive-minded power forward with enough demonstrated shooting ability to stretch the floor.
There were supposed to be psychic benefits as well, a sense that management had heard Lowry’s and DeMar DeRozan’s plaintive words in the past week and had stepped in to stop the bleeding. After blowing a game late against Detroit Sunday, Lowry told reporters he was “worried” and added: “Something’s got to give, something’s got to change.”
The Raptors had their eye on Ibaka after last season but Oklahoma City’s asking price was higher then. He wound up going to the Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis. Ujiri resolved to take another run at him this summer in free agency, but the rent to get Ibaka now – adding his ferocity and his experience (Finals in 2012) – was affordable, given what Toronto has at stake here and now.
"We’ve got to do it with a sense of urgency because time is running out"
The Raptors’ moods were far lighter before Tuesday’s game than after. After the obligatory odes to Ross as a departed teammate, they spoke eagerly about Ibaka’s game and the fact that the cavalry, any cavalry, was coming.
“It’s kind of hard to pick one,” Lowry said when asked of Ibaka’s most valued attribute. “We could use the shooting. We could use the toughness. We could use the floor-running. We could use the shot-blocking. We could use all of that.”
Said DeRozan, all too aware that Bismack Biyombo was gone this season and signee Jared Sullinger hasn’t panned out: “We’ve been talking about a four for the last year or two as an addition to our team, and we got a guy like Serge at a critical point when we needed him.”
Ibaka’s new teammates stay realistic about what he can do and, in the midst of this spiral, what they must do to pull out. To paraphrase from Celtics lore, Bosh, Carter and Olajuwon are not walking through that door. Going solely by how the Raptors played against Chicago, Ibaka might be tempted to flunk the physical.
“One guy’s not [going to fix everything],” coach Dwane Casey said late Tuesday. “We’re excited about Ibaka coming in but we’ve got other things we’ve got to get fixed up before he comes in. Our defense, one. Our physicality, he will help that tremendously. But getting guys back in the rotation. Getting [Patrick Patterson] back in with the second unit. We’ve got to do it with a sense of urgency because time is running out.”
Moving out Ross and his potential-as-incessant-tease should open up consistent playing time for Norman Powell, who figures to benefit from a spot in the regular rotation. But the deal also strips away excuses and places the pressure squarely on the team, not the front office.
With Cleveland coping with the injury absences of Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, with teams such as Boston, Washington and Indiana looking to escalate the arms race in the East with a week to go before the trade deadline, Toronto has made a considerable move to alter the playoff bracket and maybe its outcome.
Assuming, of course, the Raptors don’t meet up with the Bulls in the early rounds.
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