Clippers power past Raptors with Serge Ibaka on the verge of returning

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Los Angeles Clippers center Serge Ibaka (9) dribbles in the first half of an NBA basketball game.
Clippers center Serge Ibaka controls the ball during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans on March 14. (Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

The surest sign that things had changed Tuesday night could be seen on the Clippers’ sideline at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

The Prada bucket hats, designer sweatshirts, high-end scarves-turned-gaiters and flowing, one-piece items that center Serge Ibaka donned for the last two months had been traded in for NBA-issue Nike warmups.

Ibaka no longer was doing sideline “art” — his term for his sartorial choices. Because what he could be doing soon, for the first time since injuring his back March 14, is playing basketball.

Though the 31-year-old center did not play during his team’s 115-96 rout of the Toronto Raptors, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue expressed optimism that Ibaka will return at some point during the final three games of the last road trip of the regular season.

“That’s our goal,” Lue said before tipoff, with games in Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City upcoming. “He’s progressed and he’s rehabbing right now on the road, so hopeful we can get a chance to get him a couple games before the season’s over and just try to see how he feels and how he looks on the floor.”

Lue reiterated that holding on to the Western Conference’s third seed is his goal, and the Clippers remain one game ahead of fourth-place Denver after both teams won Tuesday. Another goal is getting the team’s veterans comfortable on the court again, as they have not played together since mid-March. Doing that when Ibaka returns, however, won’t mean dislodging Ivica Zubac from the starting center role he largely has flourished in since Ibaka’s injury.

“Zu will be the starter, for sure, but … with Serge’s experience and how he’s performed in the playoffs and winning the championship, I think it means a lot,” Lue said. “The more guys you have with that experience and more guys that you have that rise to the occasion in the playoffs, which Serge has done over his career, it’s very important to have.”

Zubac has averaged 10.6 points, eight rebounds, 1.5 assists, one block and 1.4 turnovers while shooting 65% from the field since Ibaka’s injury thrust him back into the starting lineup. Last month, guard Patrick Beverley attributed the Clippers’ defensive improvement since the All-Star break to the addition of Zubac.

Zubac, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Tuesday, said he had known he would continue to be the starter for some time.

“I played with [Zubac] all last year in that starting unit, so he has my trust on both ends of the floor,” said Kawhi Leonard, whose 20 points matched Terance Mann’s for the game high. “I think we’re moving toward the right direction. He’s very open, he listens, and I’m the same way.”

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard looks to pass during a win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.
The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard looks to pass during a win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

In recent practices, as Ibaka progressed from four-on-four to five-on-five play, Lue said Ibaka has been open and listening to speed up his eventual transition back to the court.

“He’s been really engaged on the bench talking to the guys, asking coaches questions about certain plays and defensive coverages,” Lue said. “And then we’re in practice going through our things, he’s on the floor, seeing it, trying to understand it, seeing that we might have tweaked a couple plays from early on when he played.”

The Clippers (46-23) are 21-8 since Ibaka’s injury, with Tuesday’s win feeling like both a fait accompli and a flawed performance.

One day after being mathematically eliminated from extending their seven-year playoff streak, the Raptors (27-42) sat key veterans in favor of young players. The Clippers led by double digits for all but two minutes of the second half and made all 26 of their free throws, but they courted unnecessary trouble with flashy passes that contributed to 18 turnovers.

Paul George had six of them.

Taking care of the ball came down to “just having some humility,” Lue said.

“Some of the flashy passes and stuff, you can’t do that. You know, we gotta be more professional. Like I said, until we do that, we’re going to have 18, 19 turnovers and things like this happen.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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