LOS ANGELES — When Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka found out Kawhi Leonard would be sitting out Sunday night’s game at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers, he was determined to make up for Leonard’s absence.
“I was just focused,” he said afterward. “I just wanted to go out there and show up big time tonight.”
Ibaka had 34 points and 15 made field goals — both career highs — to go along with 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals and helped lead the Raptors to their 121-107 victory over the Lakers in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score would indicate.
Ibaka, who finished 15-for-17 from the field, made his first 14 shots to start the game — the most by an NBA player since Shaquille O’Neal did so for the Miami Heat on Feb. 25, 2006, against the Seattle SuperSonics. Ibaka got them by repeatedly feasting on the Lakers’ porous interior defense.
Over the past several years, when Ibaka spent most of his time floating around the 3-point arc as a power forward, he wouldn’t have come close to having this kind of a performance. But Nick Nurse, Toronto’s first-year head coach, has switched Ibaka to playing center full time this season, and the move has paid immediate dividends.
After Sunday’s outburst, Ibaka is averaging a career-high 18.1 points per game, while his 56.8 percent shooting percentage and 7.6 rebounds per game are the highest totals he has posted in years.
“If teams are going to play small like that and they’re gonna switch, then we can send him inside and he can either hurt them with the deep catch post-up, or hurt them on the glass,” Nurse said. “He did a little bit of both. But again, I thought he did a good job of catching, being strong, being fundamental, making some good, solid moves and being patient.
“A couple guys would jump over him, and he’d lay it in.”
Ibaka set the tone for Toronto’s romp with a blistering first quarter, scoring 20 of Toronto’s 42 points in the opening 12 minutes, outscoring the Lakers on his own in the process. He didn’t miss a shot until an unsuccessful turnaround jumper midway through the third quarter.
By then, the Raptors were up by 22, and the outcome already was decided.
“Man, to me, the most important thing is about the team,” Ibaka said. “We got a W, and I’m happier now than scoring a lot of points [in a loss]. It’s true I played great, but we got a W. To me, that’s most important.”