Los Angeles Times

Ibaka makes most of rare opportunit­y

With center Hartenstei­n injured, forgotten big man reminds Clippers this week what he brings off bench.


Amid what he described as a “strange month” and frustratio­n stemming from a reduced role, Clippers center Serge Ibaka on Wednesday night made the most of his opportunit­y.

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 of Ibaka’s 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 secondbest 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 threes, shooting, rim protection and postseason experience make him unique among their big men, is unclear even after a strong performanc­e.

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.

“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.

 ?? CLIPPERS CENTER Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times ?? Serge Ibaka (9), celebratin­g with teammates, has had limited playing time during a “strange” month.
CLIPPERS CENTER Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times Serge Ibaka (9), celebratin­g with teammates, has had limited playing time during a “strange” month.

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