Already down 0-2 in their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers will go into Game 3 without the services of a player who they hoped would bring title experience and defensive stopping power to a long postseason run.
According to sources close to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, three-time All-Defensive center Serge Ibaka will miss Friday’s critical matchup in Dallas due to lingering back issues. Ibaka had been listed as questionable since Thursday morning when he experienced spasms prior to the team’s flight to Texas.
“He’s hurting pretty bad,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue in reporting Ibaka’s status on Thursday. “So, we’ll see what happens.”
Injuries and Rustiness Threaten to Doom Ibaka’s Season
Ibaka, a 12-year veteran who won a title in 2019 with Toronto and was a noteworthy free agency pickup for the Clippers this past offseason, missed 30 games in the second half of the season from what he called a pinched nerve, suffered against New Orleans on March 14. In 39 games before the injury, Ibaka averaged 9.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
A noticeable presence on the Clippers sideline as he rehabbed, Ibaka returned to the Clippers lineup for their final two regular-season games, registering double-digit minutes and points against Houston and Oklahoma City, and though no longer a starter, was expected to play a significant role in the playoffs.
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In Game 1, those expectations were somewhat realized when Ibaka scored eight points in 13 minutes while adding four rebounds, two assists and two blocks. But in Game 2, with Luka Doncic and the Mavericks continuing to give the Clippers switch-everything defense headaches, Lue opted to go small, resulting in just two points and no rebounds in only six minutes of floor time for Ibaka.
It’s unknown how and when Ibaka re-aggravated his back prior to the pain Thursday morning but immediately following Game 2 he was filmed doing conditioning drills on the court, so it’s unlikely his back was giving him trouble during the game.
Mann and Cousins Could Represent Big Adjustments
In Game 2, right before Ibaka was put on the shelf with a little less than nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, he was seen jawing with veteran point guard Rajon Rondo following a blown coverage that led to an easy Mavericks done. After the game, however, Lue claimed that the Rondo exchange had nothing to do with Ibaka taking a seat.
“I didn’t see it, him and Rondo get into it, so I don’t know,” said Lue. “But we decided to go small. Went to [Terance] Mann, it gave us more energy, be able to switch a little bit more, a little bit more speed on the floor.”
When the Clippers traded Lou Willimas for Rondo in late March, there were high hopes that he and Ibaka would eventually form a formidable duo in L.A.’s second unit, bringing defensive intensity and extensive postseason experience (269 playoff games combined).
But with Ibaka now out and center Ivica Zubac struggling massively on the defensive end, the Clippers may opt to go heavily with a small lineup, bringing Terance Mann off the bench for big minutes and having Nicolas Batum play the 5.
The Clippers may also try to force the Mavericks’ hand inside by making them guard third-string center and formerly dominant scorer DeMarcus Cousins on the blocks. While Cousins is certainly a liability against Dallas’ spread offense, he could get some easy buckets against the Mavericks’ soft interior and perhaps create foul trouble for Dallas bigs Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber.