Serge Ibaka makes the most of rare playing time in Clippers’ win over Sacramento
How many more the 32-year-old center receives, and how consistently, remains difficult to project.
An ankle injury last week to Isaiah Hartenstein, the team’s established backup center, provided the opening Ibaka had sought since his last action Dec. 6. After playing 22 minutes Monday against San Antonio, he played 20 more off the bench in Wednesday’s 105-89 win in Sacramento, a victory in which Ibaka proved central by making seven of nine shots for 17 points with five rebounds while challenging and contesting Sacramento center Tristan Thompson’s physicality. He also finished with an assist, a steal and three turnovers.
The Clippers (17-15) outscored the Kings by 11 points during Ibaka’s 20 minutes.
“I thought Serge’s presence was big and huge off the bench and definitely anchored the defense on that second unit,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Lue and Ibaka privately spoke about the center’s winnowed role Dec. 6, with the coach telling Ibaka that he had fallen out of the rotation not out of his doing but because of the strong play of starter Ivica Zubac and Hartenstein. Ibaka has said the back issues that sidelined him a majority of last season are behind him and that he is healthy.
“We knew it was going to take some time and Isaiah’s been playing great, so the conversation kind of went like that,” Lue told The Times last week. “Any player, you’re not going to be happy about it. But at the end of the day he understood and he was OK and just got to stay ready.”
Wednesday was Hartenstein’s second consecutive absence and his timetable to return is unclear, yet from his chemistry with guards Luke Kennard and Terance Mann to advanced statistics — the difference in points scored and allowed when Hartenstein plays is second-best on the team — the Clippers could have incentive to slot him into his backup role when healthy again. Where that would leave Ibaka, whose mix of three-point shooting, rim protection and postseason experience make him unique among Clippers big men, is unclear even after a strong performance.
Tyronn Lue of the Clippers is one of the most respected coaches in the NBA because of his ability to have the “tough” discussions with players about playing time.
In a candid postgame session, Ibaka said his limited minutes during the past “strange” month “helped me to be stronger.”
“I’m going to be honest with you, as a human being it can be frustrating,” Ibaka said. “As a coach, [Lue] tries to do his best he can to keep the team together, to keep the team playing the best basketball you can and as a player, like, hard worker, someone who loves basketball like me, I want to play, too.
“At same time, it can be really frustrating . . . but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being professional. . . . At the end of the day I’m still blessed, man. If I’m not playing, even when I went to play in the G-League, my checks still come in.
“No matter what the situation is, I want to keep working, I’m going keep being professional and stay ready. That’s all I can control.”
Lue has preached the importance of staying ready to every Clipper facing inconsistent minutes. Ibaka, who exercised a $9.7-million player option to remain with the Clippers this season, called it difficult to maintain game shape without game minutes.
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“I don’t care how much you work, you push yourselves, playing games is just different” than staying in condition through workouts, Ibaka said. “Because I’m telling you, I be doing everything I can in my power to stay in conditioning, to stay ready. I be doing anything any player can do when you’re not playing, I be doing it like crazy, but it still don’t matter — when you come back, the first game is gonna cost you.”
Ibaka asked to play in the G League in November as a way to build conditioning through consistent playing time, a stint he said helped his chemistry Wednesday playing off the bench alongside rookies Keon Johnson and Brandon Boston Jr. He’d shared the court with both during his time with the franchise’s developmental-league affiliate last month, and the trio helped the Clippers’ bench outscore Sacramento’s by 22.
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