Serge Ibaka staying patient with comeback, much like Clippers in win over Hornets

Clippers forward Serge Ibaka drives to the basket against Charlotte's Nick Richards during the first quarter Sunday.
Clippers forward Serge Ibaka, left, drives to the basket against Charlotte’s Nick Richards during the first quarter Sunday.
(Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)
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Making a sign of the cross on his white Clippers jersey and lifting himself from his seat atop the scorer’s table, Serge Ibaka pointed both fingers toward Staples Center’s ceiling Sunday in his final moments before playing in a game for the first time since May 25.

The 32-year-old center missed his first shot, a jumper from 19 feet. With a pump-fake and dribble, he fluidly navigated around a Charlotte defender’s overeager closeout, only to pass the ball out of bounds to a teammate who wasn’t there.

He collected five fouls, a rebound, assist and block, and missed all three shots in eight minutes in the Clippers’ 120-106 victory over Charlotte, as the team treats his recovery cautiously.


“I’m healthy, I’m back, I’m in good shape,” Ibaka said. “Yeah, it’s going to be fun.”

But his season debut?

Center Ivica Zubac finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds as the Clippers won, while guard Eric Bledsoe played well during their third-quarter rally.

Nov. 6, 2021

“It was rough,” he acknowledged.

Ibaka pledged patience in building up his minutes slowly over the coming weeks. He was not alone in slowly finding his way.

Trailing by 13 early, the Clippers led by eight after halftime only to see the lead surrendered by their carelessness. They trailed 102-93 with seven minutes to play after a pair of intercepted passes from Paul George punctuated a 17-2 Hornets run.

Among 20 team turnovers, George was responsible for eight; he has 22 in his last three games.

Yet two days after turning a 20-point hole into a 20-point win, the Clippers proved again that they’re comfortable under pressure.

What followed was a 22-0 run that included Reggie Jackson finding a wide-open Luke Kennard for a three-pointer, Terance Mann finding Jackson on his own open three and Mann driving into a parted defense for a one-handed dunk. Charlotte scored four points in the final seven minutes despite not committing a turnover in the final quarter.

“It was our defense,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Our defense really picked up, our physicality, our attention to detail was a lot better.”

George scored a team-high 20 points with nine rebounds and eight assists and joined LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul as the only active players with at least 14,500 career points.


Jackson scored 19 points, Kennard had 18 and Mann had 17. As salt in the wound for Charlotte, Nicolas Batum, the player it waived one year ago to make room for Gordon Hayward — while still paying some of Batum’s salary — dropped in 16 points with six rebounds and three steals. Mired in an offensive slump, starting guard Eric Bledsoe did not play the final nine minutes as Lue closed with a wing lineup featuring Mann, Kennard and Jackson.

Center Ivica Zubac finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds as the Clippers won, while guard Eric Bledsoe played well during their third-quarter rally.

Nov. 6, 2021

It would not have been fair Sunday to expect this version of Ibaka to resemble the one who led the NBA in blocks during the last decade, though his most physically impressive display was his fourth-quarter block of an attempted dunk by Cody Martin. The question is whether in the coming months Ibaka still can perform like the rim-protecting, floor-spacing threat at both ends the Clippers believed they were getting upon signing him as a free agent in 2019.

He won’t be a bit player forever, like he was Sunday; the Clippers’ playoff expectations hinge on Ibaka being an impactful one.

“No pain, that’s the most important part,” Lue said. “Because we know he’s going to get his rhythm back as far as defensively and making shots.”

Ibaka said in September that he wished he had undergone surgery earlier than June. Asked Sunday what prevented him from doing that, he demurred.

“It’s not necessary for me to say now,” he said. “I don’t want to make some people look bad.”


Though starting forward Marcus Morris (knee) missed his seventh consecutive game and the injured Kawhi Leonard was nowhere to be seen on the Clippers bench, Ibaka’s return is one more piece Lue has at his disposal, one the coach acknowledged will force a readjustment of rotations he was just getting a feel for through eight games.

But one future combination already appears unlikely.

Lue paused when asked whether he believed he could play reserve centers Ibaka and Isaiah Hartenstein together before replying, “I don’t know. I hope not.” Then he started laughing, and asked why, said “anything is possible” in the current NBA, referencing Cleveland starting three nearly 7-footers.

Removing Hartenstein from the rotation would take away one of the team’s most dependable trios.

He, Mann and Kennard had helped the Clippers outscore opponents by more than 23 point per 100 possessions.

“Serge is a big piece for us. we know what he can do,” said Ivica Zubac, who produced a second consecutive double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “I think we got three really good bigs that any certain night one can play really good. It’s up to coach to do whatever he wants to do with those minutes.”