Serge Ibaka looks sharp in return, but Clippers sit several players and lose to Rockets

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The Clippers' Serge Ibaka, middle, drives to the basket past the Rockets' Kelly Olynyk (41) on May 14, 2021, in Houston.
The Clippers' Serge Ibaka drives past the Rockets' Kelly Olynyk on Friday night. Ibaka had 15 points and seven rebounds in his first game since March 14, but the Clippers lost 122-115. (Bob Levey / Pool photo via Associated Press)

Out of the Clippers’ lineup for two months, Serge Ibaka played like he barely had missed a day Friday night in his return after missing 30 games because of a back injury.

The former starting center looked fluid in 17 minutes off the bench while finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists in his team’s 122-115 loss at Houston. Ibaka made six of eight field-goal attempts.

Ibaka said he had played the entire season with a nerve issue in his back but felt more pain than usual during a March 14 loss to New Orleans, "and I had to shut down."

He added that he doesn't feel completely healthy yet but needed to test his condition before the postseason started.

"I’m getting better and I've be working for the last two months very hard to get back and I’m getting better every day," he said.

The 12-year veteran will play off the bench behind starter Ivica Zubac going forward, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has said, and Ibaka made clear it didn't affect how he would "lock in" for the playoffs.

"Zu, he’s been doing a great job," Ibaka said. "Right now, I am not thinking about who is going to start, it’s about the team. One thing about me, when the playoff time come, I am really locked in. All I worry is to go out there and to play and help my team. I won a championship before coming from the bench so it is not the first time.

"I don’t think that really makes [a] difference, starting or coming from the bench. I am going to put my mind and I am going to work hard to be ready for the playoffs."

His return had its moments of miscommunication. Expecting Luke Kennard to cut toward the corner, Ibaka threw a pass there while Kennard kept running toward him around the three-point arc instead. When Rajon Rondo flipped a behind-the-back pass to Ibaka in the third quarter, the pass slipped between his legs. Before Friday, they had never shared a court as teammates, given the Clippers traded for Rondo after Ibaka hurt his back.

Lue gladly took all of the expected rougher edges. The Clippers had waited for weeks to see the 7-footer back on the court.

“He said he felt good, just tired, and that’s to be expected,” Lue said. “I thought he moved well, and I thought he got to the offensive rebounds, got some putbacks, rolled to the basket. I thought he looked good for being out 30 games. So that was a good sight to see.”

The Clippers' Serge Ibaka shoots a layup over the Rockets' Kelly Olynyk on May 14, 2021.
The Clippers' Serge Ibaka shoots a layup over the Rockets' Kelly Olynyk in the third quarter. (Bob Levey / Pool photo via Associated Press)

The loss ensured they will avoid the Lakers in the first round and open against either Dallas or Portland. But on a night when little on the court felt like a barometer for the postseason — one night after a win in Charlotte, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson, Amir Coffey and Terance Mann all did not play — the Clippers wanted to evaluate most how Ibaka physically handled the shoves, pushes and boxing out that come with an NBA center’s job description.

Ten seconds after entering the game, Ibaka grabbed the offensive rebound after a Rondo miss, then moved underneath the basket to get in position for a right-handed hook over the extended arm of Houston’s Kelly Olynyk. When he threw his pass to Kennard to the wrong spot, Kennard saved the turnover by flinging the pass back to Ibaka, who took a quick dribble into the paint before dumping an assist to Kennard for a layup. And when Rockets forward Kenyon Martin Jr. barreled into the paint to try to crush a dunk over Ibaka’s defense, the center held his ground and didn’t allow the basket.

The Clippers’ desire to get Ibaka minutes before the playoffs hadn’t changed in recent days. But how much do they still want the Western Conference’s third seed, as Lue previously stated?

The Clippers' Rajon Rondo drives against the Rockets' Armoni Brooks (7) and Kelly Olynyk on May 14, 2021.
The Clippers' Rajon Rondo drives against the Rockets' Armoni Brooks (7) and Kelly Olynyk during the second quarter. (Bob Levey / Pool photo via Associated Press)

Entering Friday, only two playoff seeds out of a possible 20 had been solidified, leaving teams few days left to jockey for position. The Clippers slid into fourth place in the West with the loss. Denver and the Clippers are now both 47-24, but the Nuggets hold the tiebreaker. The Clippers will finish in fourth if they lose Sunday’s finale at Oklahoma City but still can finish third.

Will they try to lose Sunday? Finishing fourth could make it so they avoid the Lakers until the Western Conference finals. Drawing a 3-6 matchup against Portland, however, would mean playing a Trail Blazers team the Clippers swept this season, and there is another incentive for not resting key players — it's their last opportunity to see how a fully healthy roster looks, now that Ibaka has returned.

Lue said the third seed is "what we’re worth fighting for and shooting for," but that the "the safety of our players is most important and for us being healthy going down the stretch. It was the right decision. Whatever it is seeding-wise, whoever we play, we play."

Rookie Jay Scrubb scored 17 points in his third career game, and first start, and Kennard had 23 for the Clippers.

Leonard and George sat for rest, according to the team, and Beverley because of injury management for his left hand. Marcus Morris and Zubac were given de facto nights off as well. Zubac, who has played every game this season and wants to keep his ironman streak alive, played only three minutes — enough time to make the first three-pointer of his career — before checking out for good. Morris played only nine minutes.

Mann didn’t play because of personal reasons, while Jackson’s sore Achilles tendon is “nothing serious,” said Lue, who said the decision was precautionary. Coffey has missed his last seven games while in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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