Clippers hope Serge Ibaka will return from injury this week

1620776625 Clippers hope Serge Ibaka will return from injury this week
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The Clippers are hopeful center Serge Ibaka will return this week for his first games since injuring his back March 14, coach Tyronn Lue said Tuesday.

“That’s our goal,” Lue said before the team’s road game in Tampa, Fla., against Toronto, the start of a four-game trip with games to follow in Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City. “He’s progressed and he’s rehabbing right now on the road, so hopeful we can get a chance to get him a couple games before the season’s over and just try to see how he feels and how he looks on the floor.”

When Ibaka does return, he will play off the bench rather than return to his role as starting center. Ivica Zubac is the starter moving forward, Lue said.

Zubac has averaged 10.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.4 turnovers while shooting 65% in 28 games since joining the starters. In April, guard Patrick Beverley attributed the Clippers’ defensive improvement since the All-Star break to the addition of Zubac, who was last season’s starter. The Clippers (45-23) have gone 20-8 in that span.

“Zu will be the starter, for sure,” Lue said, “but with Serge’s experience and how he’s performed in the playoffs and winning the championship, I think it means a lot. The more guys you have with that experience and more guys that you have that rise to the occasion in the playoffs, which Serge has done over his career, it’s very important to have and very important to try and get him back. I’m glad he’s able to come on this trip.”

Following the Clippers’ loss Sunday to the Knicks, Kawhi Leonard said he had tried to keep Ibaka engaged during his absence by asking him what he had observed about the team’s play.

“Just trying to keep him in the loop,” Leonard said. “… Ask him what is he seeing, him giving me feedback on what he sees on the floor, and that’s all I can do, just try to keep his spirits up, still talk to him as if he’s playing.”

Lue reiterated that claiming the Western Conference’s third seed is the team’s goal, but he added that another is getting the team’s veterans, who have rarely played with one another since March because of a litany of injuries, comfortable together on the court.

In addition to progressing physically from four-on-four games in practice to full five-on-five, Ibaka has become “very engaged” in understanding the team’s new playbook wrinkles, Lue said.

“Over the last couple of weeks, he’s been really engaged on the bench talking to the guys, asking coaches questions about certain plays and defensive coverages,” Lue said. “And then we’re in practice going through our things, he’s on the floor, seeing it, trying to understand it, seeing that we might have tweaked a couple plays from early on when he played.”

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