Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker, and what they will bring to the Raptors as the season ends, and the playoffs begin.
Physical, dynamic, tough, imposing; the list could go on when describing the likes of PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka. The two forwards were shipped to Toronto following the Raptors two trade deadline moves last month. Despite the warranted words that I used to describe them above, PJ and Serge fit a certain mold that renders them to be quite ideal for Casey’s defensive scheme, or any scheme in that matter.
Serge Ibaka - Versatility
It only took Ibaka one possession to show us his impact on both ends of the floor. Although most fans will be astounding by his swat later on in this sequence, I was more impressed by this flawless switch onto IT.
Carroll picks up Isaiah in transition, forces him right (his “weak” hand), right into an Al Horford screen. Ibaka perfectly switches onto Thomas, takes away the rolling Horford’s passing lane with his length, then clamps Isaiah into picking up his dribble while Carroll re-denies the pass from Horford. Beautiful.
It’s the little things, small stuff like that will win you games. Most times, if IT gets switched onto a power forward, he’s backing up, isolating, and beating him. Serge’s versatility allows him to combat the quickness of almost any guard. Obviously, there are going to be guards that can beat almost any big, as they can beat almost every guard; Kyrie, Wall, Curry, CP3 etc. But Serge gives the Raptors something that they haven’t had the comfort of owning over the past years; A fighting chance in the defensive pick-and-roll.
Years ago, Ibaka would be a pure power forward only. Now, his ability to protect the rim and his improved shooting stroke allows him to anchor a devastating small-ball lineup whilst at the five. Putting him at the three may be pushing it, but with the right core, it’s not even out of the realm of possibility.
Along with versatility, Ibaka is a no-nonsense competitor whose energy burns off to those around him. Serge has fantastic timing on his blocks, putting him 10th in the league, despite being the shortest player in the top 10. His length plays a tremendous factor, but his toughness and fearlessness give him the much-needed edge to be the force that he is on defense.
PJ Tucker - Toughness
(Just a little disclaimer - any section that talks about PJ Tucker are going to begin like this.)
PJ Tucker is a gamer. He is such a dynamic defensive force to have on your team, and he serves as another versatile, defensive “switch-everything” force, along with Patterson, Carroll, Ibaka etc. But Tucker brings more than that, (as Ibaka brings more than just versatility). PJ brings another layer of toughness to this team. Another layer of scrappiness and a win-and-all-costs demeanor.
Tucker can comfortably play any role on the wing; two, three or even four. His systematic offensive play fits in with any unit, and his defense, obviously, allows him to get minutes with most rotations, considering he will most often be guarding the opposition's best player.
The beauty of a player like PJ is that you never have to worry about his intensity on a given night. Too many guys tip-toe on the balance of this from game to game. One night he may be scrappy and intense, the other night quiet and disinterested. Not PJ. He shows up every night and plays defense the only way he knows how; with toughness.
For all Raptors fans, we all know that Casey is (somewhat painfully) defensively oriented. With PJ and Serge, Dwane probably has trouble sleeping at night thinking of what these two will do to this team, in terms of its defensive versatility and toughness.
In times like these, this is what the Raptors need. When every loss is scrutinized, and every win is expected, some life needs to be injected into this team. We’re hopefully over the mid-season slump (right before the all-star weekend), but this team needs to keep pushing.
Cleveland is without a doubt the top team. Washington and Boston have secluded themselves in a two-way tied for second, while Toronto and Atlanta have formed their own tier while independently fighting for the 4th seed. Beyond those five teams, it is a dogfight for the 6-7-8 seeds.
If Toronto doesn’t wane from its losing ways, there’s a possibility that they could be a part of that dogfight for the bottom seeds. This is something that I pray doesn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be insane for it to occur. The Raptors are going to struggle without Lowry, but for a team as deep as we are, on paper, we really need to start playing like it.
For now, I’m going to refer to the PJ/Serge tandem as Dwane’s Disciples. It will take a while for these two to get properly acclimated and adjusted, but I believe that the two will have a lasting impact on this unit. Whatever they choose to do in the offseason is beyond me - I don’t care for now. Now, we have to focus on winning games.
Through the tough times that are sure to follow, the Raptors have 16 games to end the regular season on a high note. There will be a lot of games coming against fellow Eastern competitors occupying the 6 through 11 seeds. These games will have a great impact on how the Eastern Conference shakes up as the games dwindle down.
For Dwane’s Disciples (I coined that, by the way), they bring another element to the table that the Raptors may need. If the situation permits, and the Raptors share the playoff hardwood with last year's champions, expect Casey to cycle his disciples at Lebron, and potentially even Kyrie and Love. The Disciples bring a lot to the table, and hopefully, it’s enough to give the Raptors that much-needed edge to take down the Cavs, Wiz, or Celtics come playoff time.
Is that a lot to ask? I don’t think so. After all, this is the greatest assembled Raptors team of all time.