How Serge Ibaka reminded the Raptors they still have reason to believe

TORONTO — The Raptors didn’t notch their first victory of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday night as much as they survived it. By the end of the 118-112 double-overtime thriller against the Milwaukee Bucks, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell fouled out. So did Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi Leonard tweaked his leg in the second quarter, sending a collective shiver through the crowd at the Scotiabank Arena. But the only thing he shattered was his career high in minutes: he played 52 of a possible 58, finishing with 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

“Guys did a great job just finding a way and scrambling,” Lowry said. “Making plays and making big shots, and we were really good defensively.” So it is that after leaving Milwaukee down 2-0, a deficit only 7.1 percent of teams have overcome, the Raptors escaped Game 3 with a victory.

Prior to the contest, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was stupefied in the face of the numerical odds.

Toronto Raptors centre Serge Ibaka (9) goes the net as Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) defends during first half NBA Eastern Conference finals basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Raptors center Serge Ibaka played only 14 minutes Sunday night, but he made a major contribution another way. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

“That can't be right. That can't be right. Check the figures,” he said. When the numbers didn’t let him paint a picture of a better future, Nurse turned to the anecdotal. “How do I find the solace? I find the solace when OKC got beat by 34 and 24 and went down 2-0, and then won four straight against a great, great, great, great San Antonio team.”

Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, the defensive anchor for that 2012 Thunder run, played only 14 minutes Sunday night — Nurse opting to dance with the starters that brought him — but inside the locker room, the 10-year veteran gave hope to the nearly hopeless.

After Game 2, he walked into the road locker room at the Fiserv Forum and found a team that seemed all too aware of the odds. “The energy was really down. Everybody was down,” he recalls. "We were supposed to win the first game and we didn’t win the first game. Then the second game, at some point they were up by like 26, 28.”

“It feels like sh--,” Ibaka said, recalling both times he faced a 2-0 deficit. But who better to find comfort in that familiar hopelessness than the walking 7 percent, one of the few men who knew — really, really knew — that the ink hadn’t dried on their stories. “I felt like we needed to hear something to give us belief, to know it’s not late, it’s not over yet,” he said.

So he told his teammates a long story, one that played out over four straight victories that led the Thunder to the Finals. Mostly, he just told them how it feels to be down and out, like you’re up against an impossible foe who won’t stop hitting impossible shots and kicking your ass all over the court.

“Me and Danny [Green] were playing on the Spurs, so we really didn’t like that,” Leonard joked after the game. The point, in a weird twisted way, is all three know it can be done. They have seen it. When the odds seem insurmountable, knowing they aren’t is half the battle. Maybe it’s easier to do the impossible twice. Maybe the first crack is what arms you with the resilience, the inner fortitude — the hope, really — to do it again.

“When something like that happens, it’s you against the world,” Ibaka said. “All you have to do is stick together and give everything. The guys did it tonight.”

In overtime, Danny Green came off a screen and drilled a corner 3-pointer, excising the tension from the Scotiabank Arena. They were his only points of the night. Leonard somehow won a jump ball against Giannis. Gasol, sucking wind with nine minutes left in regulation, played another 19 in foul trouble, scoring five points in the final five minutes.

Ibaka also told them how the climb only seemed unconquerable until it wasn’t, how the mental fatigue flipped into momentum after the second straight victory.

“Now, we’re back. You get your confidence back,” he clapped, jolted by the nostalgia and excitement. “Now let’s push for the third one. Boom. Oh sh--. We won the third one. Now, we just squeeze them.”

But let’s backtrack a second. Momentum had something to do with the Thunder’s comeback, but young legs didn’t hurt, and three-fifths of the Raptors’ starting lineup is on the wrong end of 30. The second victory, he said, was the hardest one, and the Raptors will have only 46 hours to recuperate.

They survived. But how much longer can they endure? Just don’t tell them the odds.

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