In just two games in the opening round of the Western Conference semifinals, Jazz center Rudy Gobert has amassed 32 rebounds and five blocked shots. Clippers coach Ty Lue has tried to tinker with both his lineups and his overall strategy to counterbalance the impact that Gobert has in the middle, but the final analysis remains a simple one: The Clippers need another big guy.
And they won’t be getting one. Any hope for the return of center Serge Ibaka, who has been battling a back injury since March, has been lost after Ibaka had surgery this week to deal with the back problem. The team revealed that Ibaka had the surgery on Thursday.
Ibaka had been out since March 14 with the injury, but returned to play in the Clippers’ final two regular-season games and the first two playoff games, against the Mavericks. But he did not travel when the series moved to Dallas after Game 2.
He tweeted his regrets on Friday, including a photo of himself in the hospital.
“There is nothing I would love more than being on the court helping my brothers and trying to win a championship for #ClipperNation,” Ibaka wrote. “It’s been a very tough season, I worked very hard to be back in time for the Playoffs … sometimes injuries get in the way and health has to be a priority. I appreciate all the love and support from everyone and now I have my mindset on supporting my team and getting healthy and ready for next season.”
Ibaka Has Free-Agent Decision Ahead
Of course, there is no telling exactly where Ibaka will be playing next season. He has a player option worth $9.7 million and before the back injury, there was a sense that he would forgo that option and hit the free-agent market in the summer.
But Ibaka will be 32 in September and health will be a major question mark. He made only 41 appearances this season averaging 11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 23.3 minutes, shooting 51.0% from the field.
Ibaka can still be useful, though unreliable. Because of that unreliability, he would be well-advised to opt in on the $9.7 million for next year and try to show he can stay healthy.
After coming back from the injury, Ibaka told reporters he had suffered a “pinched nerve,” and was struggling to feel right. “I have been playing with my back pain since the beginning of the season,” he said, according to SI.com.
Gobert Proving a Big Problem for the Clippers
Leaving next season aside, the Clippers still have a Gobert problem here in the conference semis, facing an 0-2 deficit in the series as things shift back to Los Angeles. Ibaka would certainly have helped but, instead, the Clippers are cycling between three options at center: occasional starter Ivica Zubac, midseason pickup DeMarcus Cousins and a small-ball lineup with Nicolas Batum in the middle.
In the first round against Dallas, the Clippers shot 20.4 attempts per game at the rim, making 69.2% of those shots. Against the Jazz in the first two games, the Clippers have made 59.0% of their shots at the rim, taking only 19.5 per game.
Lue is OK with that.
“Rudy is the best rim protector in the league, I think he’s the best pick-and-roll defender in the league, so we’ve got to be smart,” Lue said. “We come off — we can’t get too deep in trying to do it through his chest. This is a different series than playing against Porzingis and Boban and those guys. So now we’ve got to adjust our game to play against the Utah Jazz.
“When you come off and you’re open, just shoot it. There’s nothing to think about. We’re not trying to make extra moves. Just come off, he’s in a drop, shoot the basketball and be confident in his shot. That’s the big adjustment we can make as far as that.”