Serge Ibaka’s slip-up was all too relatable when he was describing how he felt playing in his first game since May 25.
“It’s first game, man, after I don’t know, like almost a year,” Ibaka said. “I don’t know, 10 months, a year.”
He was off by about five months, but who among us hasn’t lost track of time, especially over the past year. And for someone who loves playing basketball as much as Ibaka, the time off must have felt like an eternity, thus the exaggerated timeline.
To watch Ibaka Sunday against the Hornets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it had been at least 10 months since he had last taken the court, and Ibaka was the first to be critical of his performance, even if that outcome was normal.
“It was to be expected, he hasn’t played in a long time, so for him to work his way back and finally get on the floor where he feels comfortable, no pain, that’s the most important thing,” Ty Lue said postgame. “We know he’s gonna get his rhythm back as far as defensively and making shots and things like that. But when you come back from an injury like that and you’ve been out for a while, the game does seem fast.”
That game speed was most apparent on the defensive, where Ibaka felt a beat slow for much of the night. LaMelo Ball ran a pick-and-roll with Ibaka’s man on his first possession, Ibaka dropped back, and Ball had no regard for him on his way to the basket for a floater. Ibaka was similarly out of his element on a couple of switches and mismatches in transition, as the Hornets perimeter players were able to draw a lot of fouls on him — Ibaka had five of those in eight minutes.
One thing that came back immediately for Ibaka was his box-out technique, whether legal or not. Ibaka only grabbed one board, but he did an outstanding job of clearing his man so his Clippers teammates could collect the rebound, a good sign for a team that is presently 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage.
There was also an apparent lack of feel on the offensive end. Ty Lue got the ball to Ibaka for a free-throw line jumper on his first after timeout play, and again for a post up on the first offensive possession of the fourth quarter, but Ibaka’s touch wasn’t quite there on his shot. He was way too long on the first attempt and then didn’t appear to have enough lift on his turnaround.
It seemed like Ibaka wasn’t quite up to speed learning the plays, either. That resulted in a couple of offensive possessions where the Clippers looked stagnant and not in the right places, and even one where Ibaka made a pass to an empty corner because he thought Terance Mann would be there.
The goal for Ibaka was never to dominate the flow of play in his first game back; it was to stay healthy and get more comfortable. In that respect, his debut was a smashing success. He clearly got better as the game went on, exemplified by him meeting Cody Martin at the rim for a highlight block in his final minute of action.
“I’m good conditioning-wise, health wise, I’m good thank god,” Ibaka said after the game. “It was rough, but I just want to thank coach for putting me back in again, so now I’m about to go in the gym now to lift, to get ready for the next game, so move on and get focus on the next game.”
The Clippers will continue to ease Ibaka along, a luxury they’re afforded thanks to two other capable centers on the roster and a friendly schedule that keeps the team at home for six straight games. This is the ideal way back for Ibaka, who already had an aborted comeback last year and wants to make sure that he is peaking at the right time this season.
“I had to put a lot of work, I had to take time, I think I could have come back a little bit earlier, but I didn’t want to do it because of last year’s situation,” Ibaka said. “I took my time and make sure I’m ready to go. The most important is to finish the season and play the playoffs. I don’t want to miss like I did last year.”
No one wants to wait another ten months, or even just five, before seeing Ibaka again. It’s important that he and the Clippers get this right. They’re off to a good start.