Serge Ibaka — ‘Locked in’ Raptors ready for NBA restart

From the moment he and his teammates reconvened in Florida last week, Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka said everyone was “locked in” and ready to get to work.

“I saw just how everyone is in great shape,” Ibaka said on a conference call with reporters Saturday afternoon. “They came here in great shape, and as soon as we got here everyone was starting to put in work.

“I’ve been in the league for 11 years. You can see when people’s locked in and they are ready mentally, and when they are not.

“So I can tell you right now, mentally, everybody is ready. Everybody is ready.”

Ibaka and the Raptors were the one team that was allowed to travel to Florida early, due to complications with trying to have players return to Canada from the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Raptors, who are working out at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, still can only shoot individually at their own basket (like players on all teams) until after they enter the Disney World bubble and quarantine there.

Still, Ibaka said that it felt good to be able to get shots up after spending so much time away from the gym.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said with a smile. “It’s helpful. And, also, like I said just seeing the guys around I think is good, too.”

As for the rising case count in Florida, Ibaka said that it was something he’s worried about — in part because his daughter lives in Orlando. He said she and those around her are feeling good, however, and that he hopes everyone takes precautions upon entering the bubble.

“Honestly it’s really concerning,” he said. “Hopefully everybody has to follow the rules, every player, when we get in the bubble in Orlando, we can respect all the notes that they’re going to give us. But I have my daughter who lives here in Orlando, and it’s kind of scary a little bit. It’s something where you have to make sure you look at it.”

It’s been a strange season, to say the least, for the defending NBA champions. Toronto had barely finished celebrating last season’s title when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left in free agency. Then the Raptors went to Japan in the preseason, and entered the regular season with little expectations due to Leonard’s departure.

But Toronto then proceeded to become one of the NBA’s best teams, and was the Eastern Conference’s second seed, on pace to win 59 games, when the season was suspended on March 11 — all while every member of the team’s core rotation (except for OG Anunoby) had missed at least a month during the regular season due to injury.

“It’s been a little bit weird [this season] with everything that’s going on,” Ibaka said of Toronto’s attempt to defend its title. “But one thing we know is that it’s over. Whatever happened last season is over, and we’ve got to try to put our mindset so that it’s ready to go for this one.

“We know it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a challenge, and everyone is going to come for us because we are the champs, so we have to be ready.”

Ibaka, who spent most of his career as a power forward, has fully shifted to center the past two seasons with Toronto, forming an effective 1-2 punch first with Jonas Valanciunas, and then with former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

After all of the injuries Toronto has suffered this season — including multiple hamstring issues for Gasol, who only played in 36 of the Raptors’ 64 games before the season was stopped — Ibaka said he’s very excited to see what the Raptors are capable of doing now that they have their full assortment of players ready to go.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a little weird in the beginning to have everybody at the same time, but I think it’s a good thing because we need that. I can’t really wait to see how it’s going to work out for us having everybody back.”

And how high does he think Toronto’s ceiling can be with everyone healthy?

“Everything,” he said. “We believe in us. We have the experience. We have the championship mentality already. We have confidence.

“But now it’s time to go. Time to go to work, and, like I said, we’re ready.”

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