Change in Routine Signals Return of Clippers’ Ibaka

Serge Ibaka

Getty Ibaka goes for the swat

There is still no definitive date for the return of Los Angeles Clippers center Serge Ibaka from injury, but an upcoming change to his routine may be a major indication that he’ll be back in business sooner than later.

Ibaka has missed the last 28 games after suffering back spasms on March 14 in a game against the New Orleans Pelicans, and since then the 11-year veteran has opted to stay home during away games to rehab. But Ibaka will travel with the team for their final games of the regular season — a four-game road trip through Tampa (Raptors), Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City — giving hope to the notion that he is finally healthy.

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The Clippers would surely benefit from getting Ibaka some actual minutes before the playoffs start, not only to see where he’s at physically but also to allow him to get a feel for his teammates, some of whom — notably Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins — were not even on the roster when Ibaka went out.

But obviously, the Clippers won’t want to play Ibaka if there’s even the slightest chance of re-injury or if his (presumed) rustiness might jeopardize the team’s playoff seeding. So it seems reasonable to think that head coach Ty Lue might wait for the final two games, against Houston and OKC, to play Ibaka, if at all.

Both Houston and OKC are cellar-dwellers and should be easy wins for the Clippers, making Ibaka a low-risk play from a winning perspective and also giving him the most time to recover. A possible scenario is one in which Ibaka plays limited minutes against Houston and OKC and then takes the next week (while the Play-In tournaments happen) to see how his back reacts.

Ibaka Is Being Fashionably Late

Even if Ibaka fails to see time before the regular season ends, and assuming he makes it back at all this year, it’s not like he’ll be starting from scratch come the playoffs. According to several Clippers, most recently Kawhi Leonard, who spoke to reporters following the Clippers’ 106-100 loss to the Knicks Sunday afternoon, the organization has done its best to keep Ibaka engaged and ready.

“Training staff and the coaches have been doing a good job,” Leonard said. “Letting him get some five-on-five in, letting him run up and down the court, making sure his body’s healthy, in the training room, whatever he’s doing, stretching or getting a massage or doing some type of activation work.

“And then just trying to keep him in the loop. That’s what I try to do myself, ask him what is he seeing, in him giving me feedback on what he sees on the floor. And that’s all I can do, just try to keep his spirits up, still talk to him as if he’s playing.”

While out, Ibaka has nonetheless been a visible presence on the Clippers’ bench during home games. Like something straight off a runway in Milan, the fashionable Ibaka has sported a number of different looks during his time away from the action, often drawing the attention of fans and announcers.

In an April 4 game versus the Lakers, announcer Jeff Van Gundy likened Ibaka’s wardrobe to, well, a bathrobe, though the outfit could have just as easily been a clever nod to the movie Fletch, in which Chevy Chase plays a Lakers-obsessed undercover cop who sports a similar look while patrolling the beaches.

And then there was the May 4 matchup with the Raptors when Ibaka went for an all-leather ensemble, a look that, not surprisingly, caught the eye of Twitter (and perhaps a few animal-rights activists).

Can Ibaka Help Prevent Another Meltdown?

When the Clippers signed the free agent Ibaka to a two-year, $19 million in November of 2020, expectations were high that the three-time All-Defensive selection would fortify L.A.’s often problematic interior defense.

Only two months earlier, the Clippers had become the subject of public derision after blowing a 3-to-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Denver Nuggets, in large part off the dominating play of Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, who averaged 24.4 points and 13.4 rebounds while shooting 51.5% from the floor and 39.5% from three in the series.

But any assurances that Ibaka will prevent a similar fate from befalling the Clippers this postseason have been set aside because of his injury. Ibaka’s backup to start this season, Ivica Zubac, has played well as a starter, but he lacks the agility of Ibaka and does not have nearly the same knack for blocking shots.

Similarly, though Cousins has also played well since joining the team in April, and is a bigger presence than Ibaka down low, his lack of foot speed on defense often results in easy buckets, ones that Ibaka might otherwise contest.

In 39 games before being sidelined, Ibaka averaged 10.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 50.7% from the field and 35.2% on 2.8 attempts from behind the arc. Those numbers are low compared to the rest of his career, but Clippers forward Paul George understands that Ibaka’s impact goes beyond stats.

“He will definitely be helpful,” George said. “His defensive assertiveness on the team, his defensive presence on the team, he’ll be super-helpful, especially on offense as well, spreading the floor.

“He’s another big body that we can use in these matchups where we needed another big to guard alongside with (Zubac). And, you know, he’s just a veteran. He was great when he was in the lineup with us and we look forward to having him back with us.”

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