When Serge Ibaka accompanied the Clippers to Dallas earlier this month to watch the sixth game of their first-round playoff series, it raised hope that the 31-year-old center who had battled back from injuries might be available to play again in the postseason.
Instead, with the Clippers returning to Los Angeles having lost Games 1 and 2 of their second-round series to top-seeded Utah, there will be no playoff comeback for Ibaka, the prized free-agent signing of the team’s last offseason. The 6-foot-10 Ibaka will miss the remainder of the postseason after undergoing back surgery Thursday in Los Angeles, the team announced.
“There is nothing I would love more than being on the court helping my brothers and trying to win a championship for #ClipperNation,” Ibaka wrote Friday on Instagram. “It’s been a very tough season, I worked very hard to be back in time for the Playoffs but sometimes injuries get in the way and health has to be a priority. I appreciate all the love and support from everyone and now I have my mindset on supporting my team and getting healthy and ready for next season.”
Ibaka holds a player option for next season, the last year of his contract, that is worth $9.7 million, according to Spotrac.
While averaging 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocked shots and 38% three-point shooting while scoring in double figures 19 times through his first 27 games, Ibaka filled the role the Clippers imagined for him during free agency: A floor-spacing, rim-protecting center who could build off the success he and star Kawhi Leonard had experienced in Toronto, where they won a championship in 2019.
Ibaka appeared in only 16 more games the rest of the season, however, for what he said was first a pinched nerve in his back, suffered in March, and back spasms that sidelined him for all but two games during the playoffs.
“I’ve been playing with my back pain since the beginning of the season,” Ibaka said May 14, after his first appearance in 30 games. “It’s been a very rough year for me since the beginning of the season, but I want to play through the pain but at some point I could not continue to play like that.”
Ibaka returned for the final two games of the regular season while acknowledging that though he did not feel fully healthy, he felt he needed to play in some games to prepare for the playoffs. He played 19 minutes combined in the first two games of the first-round series against Dallas but began feeling spasms in his back before the team’s flight to Dallas on May 29, coach Tyronn Lue said at the time, and Ibaka stayed in Los Angeles to recover.
Ibaka made the trip to Dallas on June 3 ahead of Game 6, but when he did not travel with the team to Salt Lake City this week for the first two games of the second round, Lue said it was because the team’s medical team believed it was more beneficial for his recovery to stay in Los Angeles.
His absences meant that Ibaka’s postseason contributions have largely come on social media, where he tweeted during the Clippers’ comeback to defeat Dallas as though he was in a “voodoo room.”
Had Ibaka been healthy enough to continue in the postseason, it was expected that he would play off the bench as part of a pairing with veteran guard Rajon Rondo, as Lue envisioned. Without Ibaka as an option, the Clippers have turned to DeMarcus Cousins during two losses that have started their second-round series against Utah.