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Why Serge Ibaka’s return has been a big plus for the Clippers

Although it’s not been a week to celebrate for the Clippers, they have been boosted by Serge Ibaka’s return to the lineup.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers
Serge Ibaka looking ahead after making his Clippers’ return
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been a pretty wild week or so for the Los Angeles Clippers. There have been three midday tip-offs in the last five games, with all the disruption to routine and performance variables that come with the earlier start. The team has a 2-3 record during that time, though their two wins came in two of the afternoon tips. There have also been some pretty poor shooting performances across the board and a whole heap of turnovers.

There have arguably only been a couple of positives to have come out of this stretch of games. The continued hot form of Paul George has been a joy to behold, as the Clips star continues to be a walking bucket while achieving near career numbers across the box score. Add to that some strong individual displays from the likes of Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe along the way, the kind which will be much needed to keep this squad in playoff contention. The return to health of Serge Ibaka has also been a huge plus, as a one-man reminder of how strong this team can be at full health.

Ibaka initially struggled with the adaptation of coming back from his back injury and subsequent surgery, making the bold but admirable decision to drop down to the G League with the Agua Caliente Clippers for a little while to get himself back up to speed. That move has clearly paid off too, as he’s already shown some glimpses of getting back towards his best as his on-court reps increase.

That progress was capped by his performance in the Monday night game against the New Orleans Pelicans, which included some big buckets to initially keep the Clippers within touching distance of their opponent. Ibaka finished the game with season highs in minutes with 26, in points with 13, field goals made with five, 3-pointers made and attempted with three and four respectively, and six rebounds to top it all off. Most importantly he brought energy and effort off the bench, something which has been a trademark of this team but has been lesser spotted in their recent run.

Coach Ty Lue praised Ibaka’s performance in the Pelicans game during his postgame interview. “I thought Serge found his rhythm, as far as shooting the basketball. He was really good,” Lue said. “I thought he had a good rhythm, you know, making three threes. Six rebounds. So it’s pretty good. Got to continue to keep getting him going. But I thought he had a good game tonight.”

Ibaka spoke passionately about his return to the court after his third game back against the Pistons, in which he said, “A thing I love to do is just play basketball. And especially when you spend a lot of time putting in a lot of work, work hard, be patient, sacrifice a lot of things just to get your body ready to come and play basketball, you really appreciate it a lot. So that’s always going in my head now like going back and coming back now and playing again, that’s all that matters.”

As good as it’s been to have our artist back on the court, there are still bound to be some teething issues — some of which we have already seen in his handful of appearances so far. One such problem that Lue and his staff will have to work out is how to increase Ibaka’s playing time while ensuring that third-choice center and this season’s surprise package Isaiah Hartenstein still gets good minutes.

One such solution thus far has been playing them both at the four and five, which has seen mixed results in the time they’ve spent together on the court. It started well with an eye-of-the-needle pass from the German to his teammate, but has since looked as clunky as it probably should, particularly at this early stage of figuring it all out. Whichever way that experiment goes, this coaching staff will no doubt figure out ways to get meaningful minutes from all three of their bigs, and utilize each of them when they are needed most.

Ibaka’s buckets were needed last night, not only to keep the Clippers in the game but also to remind us all of just how impactful he can be to this team — even after so much time on the sideline. If this team is to see this season as a success, then they’ll need Chef Serge to start cooking on both ends of the floor.