Their passion has been questioned. Their trainer has been busy. Their esteemed coach has sported widely discussed facial hair.
The San Antonio Spurs have a lot in common with the Clippers in the season’s early going.
Both teams have struggled unexpectedly heading into their matchup Monday night at Staples Center, though San Antonio’s problems are more easily explainable.
The defending NBA champions are missing a handful of players because of injuries, and Coach Gregg Popovich has already started resting his aging stars during busy portions of the schedule.
That didn’t prevent Popovich from criticizing his team after a 100-99 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday dropped the Spurs to 2-3, their worst five-game start in five years.
“I think that we need to start playing with the same intensity that people bring at us who want to kick our butt,” Popovich told reporters after benching stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for most of the final minutes once his team fell behind by 10 points.
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers similarly blasted his players after a 17-point defeat by Golden State on Wednesday, calling them “soft.” The Clippers rebounded with an impressive victory over Portland on Saturday but realized it wouldn’t result in any banners going up.
“This didn’t crown us or anything like that,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said.
The Spurs have hardly looked like the team that won the Finals in a breezy five games only five months ago, using five starting lineups in as many games and topping 100 points once.
Forward Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals most valuable player, continues to combat the lingering effects of conjunctivitis in his right eye, which occasionally leaves him with blurred vision. He has made 12 of 39 shots, a subpar 30.8%, and missed two shots on the Spurs’ final possession against the Pelicans that could have given them the victory.
San Antonio center Tiago Splitter is scheduled to see a back specialist in Los Angeles on Monday to examine inflammation in a disc that may be responsible for discomfort in his calf. Splitter has played in one game this season, logging just 10 minutes, and is expected to sit out against the Clippers.
So is shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who has a strained right groin, and point guard Patty Mills, who has not played this season while recovering from shoulder surgery.
The Clippers are hoping forward-center Spencer Hawes can play through a strained left foot that has been bothering him for more than a week. Hawes aggravated it against the Warriors and played only 11 minutes against the Trail Blazers, exiting Staples Center with his foot in a walking boot.
Popovich and Rivers have accessorized in different ways. Popovich is wearing a beard that some have likened to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s, and Rivers has grown a wisp of a mustache as part of the “Movember” movement to raise awareness for men’s health issues.
“It’s only a month, don’t worry,” Rivers said.
The Spurs and Clippers hope their problems are even more short-lived.