Spurs-Clippers: A different kind of early-season matchup

This is the wild Western Conference all right. 

Tonight’s matchup between the defending NBA champion Spurs and Clippers (starting at 7 p.m. on Prime Ticket) was supposed to be an early-season blockbuster hit. The Spurs have lost more than they’ve won, and the Clippers are still looking for their identity, especially following an ugly loss at Golden State.

Both teams already have drawn the ire of their respective coaches.

The Spurs have limped to a 2-3 start and on Saturday, Gregg Popovich benched star players Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli down the stretch as the Spurs lost to the Pelicans, 100-99. Anthony Davis had the game-winner for the Pelicans on a layup with six seconds left, and that game was in San Antonio. 

"It’s hard to win in the NBA, no matter who you are," Jamal Crawford said on Monday. "To play against the champs, they’ve sat four or five guys … before and they gave one of the tougher teams hell."

There is cause for some Texas-sized concern for the Spurs, and they’ve got a laundry list of injuries with Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli out. Splitter is scheduled to see a back specialist today in Los Angeles, according to reports.

The Big Three for the Spurs were on the bench and could only watch the end of their last game against the Pelicans. There is much that is ailing the Spurs right now.  

The 4-2 Clippers have had plenty of end-of-game scares as well and lost to Sacramento at home. That loss against the Warriors prompted Rivers to say the team lacked effort, was soft and didn’t think players were being "real" in a postgame team meeting. 

Doc Rivers changed things up on Saturday, inserting Crawford into the starting lineup and Matt Barnes come off the bench. Both have said this season that they’re good with starting or coming off the bench. Crawford wasn’t sure if he’d be starting today, but he said he’s good with whatever Rivers decides.

"It takes some getting used to," said Crawford, who was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year last season. "However Coach sees me and however he wants me out there, I’ll be there for him."

This Clippers-Spurs game can serve as a barometer for the Clippers, who are trying to get over that second-round playoff hurdle comes postseason.

"They’re still the blueprint for everything," Crawford said. "Everything that’s good about the NBA. Just the blueprint for success. They’ve proven it over and over again."

The Clippers just beat Portland at Staples Center for a feel-good victory but they aren’t even a week removed from that drubbing at Golden State. And the Clippers believe this is a process, not a one-game turnaround. They’ve been outrebounded in all six games this season and eight games in the preseason. 

Rivers said from the onset of the season that the Spurs were the team to beat in the Western Conference. He’s also preached, even with his team, that just because an organization has the same team back, that it’s not necessarily the same team. 

The Spurs and Clippers have learned that lesson early. 

Last year, the teams didn’t play until mid-December, and the Clippers won, 115-92 but the Spurs won two of the three games. 

"You know what they’re going to do," Crawford said. "They still find ways. I think they have 14-15 straight 50-win seasons. That’s just unbelievable. So much turnover and injuries and things happen. Their system is unbelievable." 

Rivers is sporting a new mustache for Movember and Popovich a beard, so that’s different this season.

Week ahead for Clippers: How long will Crawford remain a starter?

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Spencer Hawes did away with the handlebars part of his mustache, he said, because he didn’t score on Saturday. He’s on a minutes restriction because of a sprained left foot and is still walking around in a boot between games. 

Hawes said the foot has been bothering him for a few weeks, but that he started to notice the injury more during the Golden State game. Not much good came from that game but plenty good came from the Portland game. 

"It was good. We needed that, not just from the win, but the feeling both that comes from the win and playing better, especially offensively," Hawes said. "We’re feeling like we finally got in more of a rhythm  and identity and defensively, after the first quarter, being able to string together a good stretch."

Hawes hopes the next four days will give him a chance to rest his ailing foot. The Clippers don’t play again until Saturday against Phoenix.