Warriors battered center rotation struggles to contain Serge Ibaka

DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, coming off injury, can’t keep up with Toronto’s backup center

OAKLAND — Slipping a screen set for Kawhi Leonard on the right wing, Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka received a pass in the lane as Warriors forward Andre Iguodala closed out to prevent an uncontested jump shot.

After a smooth give-and-go with point guard Kyle Lowry, Ibaka found himself staring at a clear lane, resulting in a two handed slam that gave the Raptors a 14-point lead with with 6:22 to play in the fourth quarter.

For most of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night, Ibaka, who had his best game of the series, served as a question that Golden State could not answer. Trying to combat Ibaka’s productivity with a battered center rotation, the Warriors found no success, resulting in a 105-92 loss.

“I think we kind of messed up our coverages a little bit on him,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “You’ve got to give him credit. He knocked down some shots.”

For the Warriors, in the midst of their most injury-riddled postseason run over the last five years, the center position has, perhaps, seen the worst of trauma thanks to a torn quadricep for DeMarcus Cousins and a non-displaced first costal cartilage fracture for Kevon Looney.

While Cousins made his return to the court in Game 1 after nearly seven weeks of rehab, Looney’s first game back from what is usually an eight-week injury came Friday, after missing only one game.

Initially, it was thought that Looney would be unavailable for the remainder of the Finals, but a second opinion on the injury changed that outlook for the better.

In Cousins’ case, his double-double in Game 2 propelled the Warriors to a 109-105 win in Toronto, but since then, he’s looked lost on several occasions, including the first two minutes of Friday night’s game, during which he turned the ball over three times in six possessions.

What was worse for Cousins was his defensive production, which was essentially non-existent, especially against Ibaka, who he saw for the first time in the second quarter.

After missing his first two shots in the first, Ibaka came out in the second period, guarded by Cousins, and scored eight of his eventual 20 points. Hitting all four of his shots in the quarter, Ibaka was one of the only reasons why Toronto wasn’t down by double digits at halftime despite the team shooting 34% from the floor.

“They did a good job of moving the ball and and finding the open man,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “They found Serge in the pocket and the middle of the paint several times.”

Most the damage that Ibaka inflicted was done in the pick and roll, which the Warriors had a very hard time defending. As Ibaka set the screen for players like Leonard and Lowry, his ability to slip out and roll to the basket allowed Ibaka to wreak havoc on Golden State’s interior defense.

With uncontested layups and dunks, like his rim-rocking jam in the fourth quarter, Ibaka finished the evening with 20 points while shooting the ball at a 75-percent clip (9-of-12).

Along with Cousins, the Warriors also threw Looney at Ibaka as they explored any and all defensive options to counter his scoring punch.

Dealing with the pain and limitations from the non-displaced first costal cartilage fracture suffered in Game 2 after being undercut while contesting a Leonard layup, Looney began Game 4 by scoring six points in six minutes.

“In the first half, I was pretty good with the adrenaline going,” Looney said. “But it was a little bit sore in the fourth.”

Having to guard Ibaka didn’t help either, as the 6-foot-10 forward made Looney run and defend with physicality that was made much harder because of the limitations presented by the injury.

Ibaka didn’t just hurt Golden State on the offensive side of the ball, though. He came to play defensively, recording two blocks on the night.

“Once he starts blocking a couple of shots, and the offense comes and the rebounding comes,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Even his jump shot seems to come once he gets into the game defensively.”

Turning his defense into offense — something Golden State had been adept at over the last five years — was on full display in the third quarter, when Ibaka sent Warriors turned away Alfonzo McKinnie’s shot with four minutes to play in the period.

After swatting the nine-foot floater, Ibaka sprinted back down to the other end of the court and drilled a 26-foot 3-pointer, giving Toronto a three-point lead.

Thanks to Ibaka’s contributions, and the Warriors inability to inhibit them, the Raptors now have Golden State on the brink of elimination. But it’s not something that the Warriors haven’t seen before. It’s actually not something Ibaka hasn’t seen either.

In 2016, Ibaka was a starterof the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had the Warriors down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors rallied back to win the series in Game 7.

“I’ve been on the wrong side of 3-1 before,” Green said. “So why not make our own history.”

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