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Raptors could use a surge from Serge Ibaka

Playoff veteran barely looked for his shot in Games 3 and 4

It was a second-quarter play designed to get Serge Ibaka a shot, but instead of launching the wide-open look when he received the pass from Kyle Lowry at the top of the key, the Toronto Raptors forward pump-faked his defender, drove to the basket and was called for traveling.

Fast-forward to the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 92 with just under five minutes left and the Washington Wizards at a disadvantage because Bradley Beal had fouled out. As DeMar DeRozan drove the lane and was swarmed by three defenders he kicked out to Ibaka, who had a sliver of daylight to launch a 3-pointer.

Ibaka passed (and, in all fairness to Ibaka, the Raptors scored on the possession).

The Raptors revamped their offense this season to make it more accommodating to guys not named Lowry and DeRozan. The intent of coach Dwane Casey was to provide more ball movement and multiple scoring options while keeping Lowry and DeRozan fresh for the postseason.

The result: a regular season where the Raptors won a franchise-record 59 games while securing the Eastern Conference’s top seed. And the Raptors had at least five guys score in double figures during the first two playoff games.

But given the opportunity to take control of the opening-round series in Washington, the Raptors instead lost two straight. Toronto returns home Wednesday night for Game 5 having lost momentum and facing a must-win game against the eighth-seeded Wizards.

“A lot of mental mistakes, turnovers and lack of late-game execution,” was how DeRozan summed up the two losses in Washington. “I blame myself for a lot of forced shots late in [Game 4].”

How do you take blame when you score 35? It’s easy when you need 29 shots to do it, as DeRozan forced shots down the stretch in the crucial fourth quarter of Sunday’s 106-98 Game 4 loss.

With the 32-year-old Lowry (19 points in Game 4) far from the dominant player he was in years past — he averaged 16.2 points during the regular season, when he controlled the ball less in the revamped offense — that leaves more of the scoring responsibility to others.

Especially Ibaka, who totaled just 10 points in the two losses in Washington after scoring 23 in the series opener. Ibaka barely looked for his shot in Games 3 and 4, and the only time he displayed any real fire was when he had to be restrained from going after Wizards guard John Wall in the second quarter on Sunday.

“The difference between Games 1 and 2 and Games 3 and 4 — he was shot ready,” Casey said about Ibaka. “Offensively, he’s got to take the shots coming to him instead of pump-faking and putting the ball on the floor. A lot of our perimeter players had open looks and pump-faked themselves out of shots.”

Ibaka’s play the rest of the series is crucial. Especially when you look at the backcourts of the Raptors and Wizards being relatively even (Wall and Beal are averaging a combined 48.6 points through four games while DeRozan and Lowry are averaging 43.5), and the matchup of Wizards center Marcin Gortat (13 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs) and Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (10.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG) being a wash.

It’s Ibaka who has the experience, playing in his ninth season. Ibaka who has made eight straight playoff appearances. Ibaka who’s been a three-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team, and Ibaka who’s led the league in blocks on two occasions.

After a disappearing act the past two games, Ibaka must emerge for the Raptors to have a chance to win this series.

“He’s had a rough couple of games,” Casey said. “He’ll bounce out of it. I have all the confidence in the world he’ll do that.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.