TORONTO â€” Serge Ibaka flashed a wide smile, and said he is excited to play for a winner again.
The Toronto Raptors hope the newcomer can help turn them back into one.
Ibaka, who was acquired in Tuesday’s trade that sent Terrence Ross to Orlando, arrived at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday amid renewed optimism. The Raptors are hoping the athletic power forward can help pull them out of their worst slump in two seasons, while Ibaka is happy to be back with a team in the playoff race.
“For me it’s kind of going up again, going back in competition again and playing for something. I’m very excited,” said Ibaka, wearing a navy blue wool tuque suitable for his new northern home. “One thing I know is the last two years (the Raptors) were going up, up, up. I saw last year what they did in the playoffs and it was impressive.”
It’s been down, down, down, however, for Toronto the past few weeks. Heading into Wednesday’s matchup against visiting Charlotte, the Raptors had lost 11 of 15 games and plummeted from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Orlando is 14th in the East, six spots out of the playoff race.
Because of this weekend’s NBA all-star break, Raptors fans will have to wait until Feb. 24 â€” when Toronto hosts the Boston Celtics â€” to see Ibaka play. He’ll wear No. 9.
What can they expect?
“A team like this, I’m just going to try to bring my experience and my defensive game, my toughness, my energy,” said the 27-year-old Congolese player. “Because when you have guys like Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan), you don’t need an offensive, scoring guy really. You need a guy who can bring some physicality and defensive plays, energy, running up and down. Those are the things I’m really going to bring.”
Ibaka â€” who Raptors president Masai Ujiri has coveted for years and fondly referred to as a “warrior” on Tuesday â€” spent seven seasons in Oklahoma City. Playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, he led the league four times in blocked shots and helped the Thunder to six consecutive playoff appearances.
That kind of experience, said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, is priceless.
“Our young guys are going through that … first time you see something, you know it’s a shock to the system where a guy like Serge has seen everything, he’s experienced everything,” Casey said. “He’s been to the finals. That experience in itself is huge and the more we can get that type of experience around Kyle and DeMar and some of our younger guys, it’s a huge, huge plus.”
With chemistry being a big key to any team’s success, Casey believes Ibaka should fit in seamlessly with his new teammates.
“One player falls out, it’s a thin line,” the coach said. “So chemistry is very important. I see Serge as a team-first guy, a guy who’s been on winning teams, and knows what it takes to win, knows how to give himself to the team. So I don’t see any problems there whatsoever.”
Ibaka didn’t play Wednesday, Casey explained, because of his late-night flight to Toronto and a day spent with doctors for his required physical.
“As much as we’d love to have him out there, he’s a human being going through emotions,” Casey said. “Being traded is not easy. We’ll see plenty of him come the 24th.”
When Ibaka, wearing a black Raptors hoodie and red basketball shoes, met with the media Wednesday afternoon, he still hadn’t had a chance to speak with his new coach. A meeting with Casey was next on his jam-packed Day 1 schedule.
Ibaka said it was a whirlwind day-and-a-half since the trade news broke Tuesday morning.
“Oh yes, little crazy, little crazy,” Ibaka said. “Telling my daughter (Ranie) I’m leaving, because she had to stay in Orlando for school … it’s been a little crazy but one thing I know is things happen for a reason. And I’m here for a reason, so like I said, I’m ready to go.”
Ujiri will look to re-sign Ibaka this off-season when he becomes a free agent. Asked whether it was too soon to look ahead to the summer, he let out a loud laugh.
“Yes. Very too soon,” Ibaka said.
Ibaka will play power forward plus some centre, when Casey’s lineup goes small.
Asked if he feels any pressure to help turn around the Raptors’ fortunes, Ibaka shrugged.
“It’s always pressure in sport,” he said. “It was a lot of pressure since Day 1 in Orlando, and it’s going to be always pressure, but I think those pressures make us better. Without pressure, I’m not going to wake up every day to go work, or do extra shooting, or lifting.
“I do those kinds of things because I know I have pressure on my back. So that’s going to make us better.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press