NBA Playoffs: Behind Ibaka and Powell, Raptors flash glimpse of future in big win
Toronto can build on what it has started by going all-in on versatility and spacing
Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka powered the Toronto Raptors in a game they couldn't afford to lose on Monday. In Game 5 of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Powell scored a team-high 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, with four rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. Ibaka had 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting, plus six boards, three assists, three blocks and a steal. The two of them played with force on both ends, hit their open shots and helped Toronto finally resemble the elite team it was in the regular season in the 118-93 victory. They also provided a glimpse of what the Raptors might look like in the future.
Powell, who played six minutes in Game 1, none in Game 2 and 15 in mostly garbage time in Game 3, made his own coaching staff look silly for waiting until Saturday to put him in the starting lineup. He also provided the most memorable moment of the night, a massive dunk in between Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker that served as a fourth-quarter dagger:
In the context of this series and this summer, more important than those dunks were the players on the court for them. When Ibaka threw it down, the 6-foot-8 DeMarre Carroll was playing power forward as part of Toronto's new, versatile starting lineup. When Powell did, the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker was in that spot. Over the last week and a half, the Bucks have frustrated the Raptors with lineups that are long as hell, with a bunch of similarly sized defenders who are quick enough to guard multiple positions. Toronto has countered that and taken a 3-2 lead by becoming as Bucks-like as it can, albeit without the ability to match their insane length.
"I think they move the ball better with [Powell] in the game," Milwaukee guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "I think they can spread the floor better, everybody can attack, everybody can make plays. Very similar to us 1 through 4. I think they matched our speed, our intensity and then our ability to have multiple guys make plays. That does change the game."
If Milwaukee doesn't adapt to this, then the series will be over on Thursday. In the bigger picture, though, the success of this configuration raises real questions for the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas, a traditional post-up center who doesn't space the floor like Ibaka and struggles to defend smaller players, started all 80 games in which he was healthy during the regular season. When Ibaka arrived in a trade in February, he joined the starting lineup as a 4, but clearly helped the team more in the middle. Toronto outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the court and Valanciunas on the bench, and it closed most games this way. There's a real argument that, if the Raptors get past the Bucks, they should leave the starting lineup as-is against the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially the way Powell has been playing.
"I think Powell has come in with a lot of energy on both sides of the ball." Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. "They're feeding off of that. He's playing extremely hard and he's knocking down shots, but he's in there to play defense and he's playing at a very high level for those guys right now. When you look at the stat sheet, he's picked them up here in the last couple of games just with his energy and his spirit, and somehow we have to match that. We gotta have someone who can match his spirit to give us a chance."
The Raptors paid a significant price to acquire Ibaka, and team president Masai Ujiri said immediately afterward that re-signing him as a free agent this summer would be "extremely important." He could command a maximum contract or something close to it, and if the front office makes that investment, it would be wise not to play him out of position. Ibaka is fine as a power forward, but he's one of the better centers in the league. Toronto appears to have realized this, and it hasn't played Ibaka and Valanciunas together at all in the last two games.
All of this is why, regardless of the fact Valanciunas was effective in Game 5, there will be plenty of speculation about where he fits going forward. He is owed $49.6 million over the next three seasons, a team-friendly contract, and it's possible his ideal role on this team is coming off the bench. If he and Ibaka return, the Raptors don't have to look far for an example of how this would work: Milwaukee uses the bruising Greg Monroe as a sixth man, and he played his part admirably this season. Monroe, however, could wind up going elsewhere in the offseason, and there's no guarantee Valanciunas would be amenable to this sort of arrangement.
Given that Toronto drafted center Jakob Poeltl last June and will have little financial flexibility if it re-signs Ibaka and star Kyle Lowry, its best chance for improvement might be trying to trade Valanciunas for additional playmaking and length on the wing. Either way, after with a 104-77 loss last Thursday, the Raptors have shown how they can continue to build on what they've established over the past few years: by surrounding Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with players who bring shooting, athleticism and toughness -- in other words, guys like Powell and Ibaka.
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