Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) drives to the net against Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) during first half round one NBA playoff basketball action in Toronto on Saturday, April 14, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Serge Ibaka benefiting from full season with Raptors will be key in playoff run

TORONTO — Serge Ibaka had barely played alongside Kyle Lowry when the Toronto Raptors opened the playoffs last season.

The big man was acquired at the trade deadline, and played the final 23 games of the regular season for Toronto. But Lowry was out with a hand injury and didn’t rejoin the team until four games before the playoffs tipped off.

The Raptors had envisioned Ibaka helping them past LeBron James and the Cavaliers, but with little time to jell, it just didn’t happen.

“It was more difficult than we thought especially when pressure hit,” coach Dwane Casey said. “When you don’t know the nuances or know each other well, it’s more difficult in those situations. We had to simplify some things last year just because of P.J. (Tucker) and Serge coming in … I probably didn’t do a good job of integrating them in quick enough.”

Ibaka, acquired for his defensive toughness and solid shooting, averaged 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in Toronto’s 10 playoff games, but the Raptors were swept in the second round by Cleveland.

This season is a “different story,” Casey said. Ibaka had the benefit of training camp and a full season with the Raptors, and on Saturday, he had a team-high 23 points and 12 rebounds in Toronto’s Game 1 victory over Washington.

“Last year, I didn’t really have time to work with the team, with the guys, but now we know each other,” Ibaka said. “Kyle, he knows where I like to go. DeMar (DeRozan), he knows what I like to do. I know what Kyle and DeMar like to do now. When I play with (Jonas Valanciunas) in the paint, we understand each other more now. It feels more normal now.”

Ibaka post-game press conference Saturday was almost as impressive as his game. The Congolese player answered questions in English, French and Spanish without missing a beat.

When asked Monday if Ibaka is a decent talker on defence, Casey replied: “In what language?”

“He sees things. He’s talking. He’s out there on the court giving guys advice. He’s unbelievable from that standpoint,” Casey added.

The coach hopes to capitalize on Ibaka’s playoff experience. He’s played in 100 post-season games, 89 of them with Oklahoma City.

“That right there… just the experience of being around a guy like (Russell) Westbrook and (James) Harden and all those guys, (Kevin) Durant, special situations, you can’t put a dollar value on that. That’s invaluable,” Casey said. “And you cant give it to anybody. You gotta go through that.

“He’s been through the fire.”

Casey had the 6-10 Ibaka and seven-footer Lucas Nogueira on the floor together when the Raptors pulled away from the Wizards in the fourth quarter. The duo combined for a formidable front-court wall.

“Yes, big time,” Ibaka said. “(Nogueira) is so long. He reaches, every time you go into the paint and you see Lucas, he makes you think twice.”

Casey had no news on Fred VanVleet on the eve of Game 2 at the Air Canada Centre. The backup guard missed Game 1 with a bruised shoulder after a hard hit in the regular-season finale in Miami.

Lowry was in full playoff curmudgeon mode Monday, opening his press conference with: “Please say no (questions).” When a reporter asked a question he replied: “I just asked you to say no.”

He complained about the ice storm that pounded Toronto over the weekend.

“It’s great weather we’ve got out here, it’s great weather,” Lowry said sarcastically.

Washington guard John Wall missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury. Asked whether he sensed Wall had lost a step from his absence, Lowry replied: “No. Did you watch? Yeah, yeah, no, still pretty fast. I used to be that fast … when I was like 10.”

The Raptors 114-106 win over Washington on Saturday marked the first time the team had won a playoff opener since 2001.

But Lowry and the Raptors are expecting a fierce fight from the Wizards in Game 2 on Tuesday night.

“Everything we’re doing is a part of our journey to our end goal. And we all know what the end goal is. Every night, every game, Game 1 was just one step to our journey. Game 2 is another Game 7 for us, the way we’ve gotta play,” Lowry said.

Added Casey: “I told our guys, (Tuesday’s) game is going to be one of the toughest we’ve played, just because of the fact we knew how we felt losing Game 1, how desperate we come out after Game 1, and (the Wizards) are going to be no different.

“They’re a talented team, well-coached team, they’re not your typical eight seed, and they’re going to come out breathing fire. And we’ve got to do the same, we’ve got to come in protect home, we’ve done it all year, and we’ve got to do it with a sense of urgency and a toughness it’s going to take to win Game 2, after going up 1-0.”

The Raptors lost just seven games at the Air Canada Centre in the regular season.

NOTES: Delon Wright’s condo lost power Sunday night due to the ice storm. “It wasn’t good. I just went to Real Sports (Bar) and charged up my phone there.” Did he need extra blankets? “No, I just wore a sweater and some sweats. It was all right.”

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