NBA Finals take on extra meaning for Serge Ibaka

TORONTO — Seven years ago, as the clock ticked down on the final seconds of Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals and the Miami Heat wrapped up a 4-1 series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Serge Ibaka and the rest of his teammates —which included three future NBA MVPs in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden — were certain they would return. Everyone believed the Thunder were primed to dominate the next decade, but just months later, Harden was traded to Houston. Durant eventually left for Golden State. Ibaka was traded to Orlando the same summer.

Seven years later, as the clock ticked down on the final seconds of Game 6 of the 2019 Eastern Conference final at Scotiabank Arena, Ibaka hugged his teammates, smiled through the entire post-game celebration, and even sang a song in the locker room to celebrate his return to the NBA Finals. In between, he’s gone from Oklahoma City, to Orlando, to Toronto and became the forgotten member of the core four that started with the Thunder. He’s also grown to appreciate a second opportunity in the Finals.

“Man, after seven years, it seemed like most people thought it was over for me,” Ibaka told Yahoo Sports Canada at practice on Tuesday. “But I always believed. I always put in the work. A lot of guys in the league have never seen the NBA Finals. This is my second time. I am so thankful.”

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When the NBA Finals start on Thursday, Ibaka’s father and daughter will both be in attendance. “My dad used to play basketball, now he gets to see me in the NBA Finals,” Ibaka said. “My daughter didn’t see me the first time. This is her first NBA Finals. I am grateful for this moment.”

Ibaka’s season has been about filling many roles. He started 51 games, but was in a starting center platoon with Jonas Valanciunas to start the year. A trade deadline deal for Marc Gasol eventually sent Ibaka into a permanent reserve role. It took him some time, but in the postseason Ibaka has come through on several occasions in the biggest moments, including 17 points and eight rebounds in Game 7 against the Sixers and 17 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“The sacrifices were not easy,” Ibaka said. “But you make those sacrifices and you say everything is about the team. Now the sacrifices are paying off.”

It also helped erase the bitter taste of last year’s playoff run, when Ibaka averaged 8.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in 10 postseason games, and the Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. “It’s not about my performance,” Ibaka said. “It’s about the team winning. I was disappointed last year because the team lost. Last playoff, I had a couple of great games, but the team lost, and that was disappointing.”

Ibaka has become a fan favorite this season, thanks to “How Hungry Are You,” a YouTube cooking show he hosts which has helped show off the 29-year-old’s lighter personality off the court, his budding friendship with Kawhi Leonard, and a willingness to play to the fans.

The celebrity and fame of being a professional basketball player is something Ibaka certainly enjoys, but he still remembers his humble beginnings, when he was homeless at one point in Congo before finding a basketball career which landed him in the United States. It is the reason why he has become a regular at Rol San, a restaurant in Toronto’s downtown Chinatown.

After the Game 6 win, Ibaka showed up to the restaurant at one in the morning, enjoyed his favorite fried rice in the city, and was greeted by local fans who have grown to love his personality.

“I like that place because sometimes you just want to be lowkey,” Ibaka said. “It’s not fancy. It’s just easy. I can just go out there and be me with my friends, and just be normal. Every time I go there, I feel that kind of vibe. I feel relaxed. And of course the food is good.”

There might be one more celebration meal left at Rol San, provided the Raptors can overcome the challenge of beating the Warriors four times in the NBA Finals. Ibaka wasn’t making any bold predictions on Tuesday, but does believe this Raptors team can do something special in the next couple weeks.

“This is a special group,” Ibaka said. “Very special. Our togetherness. Everybody really cares about the team. You don’t really have guys with egos here. Even guys who don’t play, you see them cheering for the team, that’s good. When things go wrong, we don’t point fingers. We talk, we watch film and get better.”

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