Serge Ibaka might not play for Clippers in Game 3 because of back spasms

Clippers center Serge Ibaka tries to block a shot by Mavericks guard Luka Doncic during Game 1.
Clippers center Serge Ibaka tries to block a shot by Mavericks guard Luka Doncic during Game 1 of their playoff series at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Trailing 2-0 in their first-round series to Dallas, the Clippers might need to shuffle their rotation a few times Friday — one by their choosing, and another not.

Back spasms have left backup center Serge Ibaka questionable to play in Game 3 in Dallas. Ibaka played just six minutes during a Game 2 loss at Staples Center, but afterward returned to the court for conditioning drills. Ibaka began experiencing spasms Thursday morning, before the team’s flight to Texas, coach Tyronn Lue said.

If Ibaka cannot play, Lue could use third-string center DeMarcus Cousins, who has yet to appear in the postseason, or opt for a smaller reserve lineup.

Ibaka missed 30 games because of what he called a pinched nerve in his back and said he was not fully healthy upon his return to the lineup in the regular season’s penultimate game. Lue called Ibaka’s availability a game-time decision.


“He’s hurting pretty bad,” Lue said. “So, we’ll see what happens.”

The Clippers’ starting lineup has also not looked fully operational, having been outscored by 18 points by Mavericks starters in their 19 overlapping minutes. Lue implied those struggles will lead to a change for Game 3 while stopping short of specifics, but outside of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the rest of their starters have largely struggled.

Center Ivica Zubac is averaging 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in the series after averages of 9.0 and 7.2 during the regular season, respectively, and was also ineffective in keeping Doncic from reaching the rim several times during pick-and-roll coverages early in Game 2.

Marcus Morris, a 47% three-point shooter during the regular season, has made 18% of his attempts from deep. Patrick Beverley’s pestering defense has given Dallas few headaches.

Lue had liked the pairing of Rondo and Ibaka off the bench, but if Ibaka cannot play, he could elevate the two-time champion guard to the starting lineup in hopes it creates easier shots for his pair of All-Stars, whose defensive workload could increase to put more pressure on Doncic.

“Something needs to be done,” Lue said. “You’ll see tomorrow.”

Whether that something will improve a defense that has watched Dallas generate the most efficient offense of the postseason remains to be seen, however. Miscommunication has been rampant, even when setting up defensively out of timeouts.

“Urgency is the right word,” Lue said. “Pressure or panic, I don’t believe in that. I think you’ve just got to take it one game at a time. They won the first few games on our floor and so we just have to take it one game at a time and understand the urgency and understand what we are trying to do and basically everybody get on the same page. That’s the biggest thing for me.

“We are urgent and we are ready to go. We cleaned up some things we need to clean up, and we’ll do the same thing tomorrow to get ready for the game.”

The Clippers are the 39th higher seed to fall behind 2-0 in a best-of-seven series since the playoffs expanded in 1984. In the 38 previous instances, only six of the higher seeds came back to win the series.

“I don’t think there will be any doubt that Game 3 will be the most difficult game we’ve faced all season,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “They will throw everything at us.”

A rally could be made more difficult by the atmosphere expected inside American Airlines Center for Games 3 and 4, where more than 16,000 fans are expected to attend to watch the Mavericks’ first home playoff game since 2016. It is also the home playoff debut of Doncic, who has averaged 35.0 points, 9.0 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 5.0 turnovers through two games.

“I didn’t even know how exciting it was going to be until my daughter came up to me after the game [in Los Angeles], like ‘I can’t wait until the game in Dallas because I’ve never been to a real playoff game,’” Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith said.

“I think when you’re down 2-0 … it shows what you’re made of,” Lue said. “Our toughness and all year, just trust, sticking together. And then this is going to show us tomorrow who we are and what we are made of. So I’m excited to see.”

Dallas listed forward Maxi Kleber as questionable to play because of a sore right Achilles. Kleber has been Kawhi Leonard’s primary defender throughout the series, and was also listed as questionable for Game 2 before ultimately scoring 13 points. J.J. Redick remains out because of an Achilles injury.

“In terms of the vibe of the locker room, it’s still positive, still know we’ve got a lot of basketball left to play, nothing negative, nothing like that,” wing Terance Mann said. “We are still locked in very much.”