LOS ANGELES -- Before the Los Angeles Clippers went their separate ways before the NBA All-Star break last week, there was a sense that something new and exciting would be waiting for them when they returned.
For the first time this season, everyone on the roster was supposed to be healthy and able to practice Monday and then play in Tuesday's game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Not only did that not happen, it doesn't look as if it will happen for a while.
Just as soon as the Clippers thought they'd be getting J.J. Redick back, they discovered he had a bulging disk in his back and will be sidelined indefinitely.
On Tuesday night, the Spurs beat the Clippers 113-103 and in the process showed the Clippers yet another glimpse of what they would like to be one day.
The Clippers will be forced to carry on for the foreseeable future with their starting shooting guard sidelined and their Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Jamal Crawford, thrust into a starting role.
It's not an ideal position, but they are far from the only team dealing with injuries. Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers, who have more players on the injured reserve list than the active roster some nights.
All the Clippers had to do Tuesday night was look at the Spurs for an example of how a championship contender handles adversity. The Spurs were playing without Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter and still beat the Clippers by double figures. San Antonio has had its true starting lineup for only 16 games this season and have the second-best record in the West and third-best in the league.
Championship teams find ways to win. This isn't to say the Clippers haven't done the same this season at times. Counting their comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks last month after Chris Paul went down because of a separated right shoulder, the Clippers are 14-6 this season without Paul. They've also been able to claim a top four seed in the West with Redick missing 26 games (and counting) and Matt Barnes missing 19 games. The Clippers, like the Spurs, have had their true starting lineup for only 16 games.
The difference between the teams, however, was evident on Tuesday night. While the Clippers have been able to stay afloat during this time, the Spurs have remained championship contenders. While the Spurs are considered one of the elite teams in the league, the Clippers would start the first round on the road at Portland if the playoffs started now.
A big reason for that difference is the Spurs are, well, the Spurs. The core of the team has been together seemingly forever. It starts with coach Gregg Popovich and extends to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.
"They trust their stuff," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "They have been together, they know it, everybody else who is new comes in and falls into it. He demands it, and he has leaders. They have been together for a long time."
Rivers got a firsthand taste of the Spurs' way of doing things when he played in San Antonio to finish his career from 1994 to 1996. Popovich built his system on a core group of players believing that the pieces around that core would fall in line.
"I think it's just logical that continuity always seems to help, whether it's ownership or management or coaches or players," Popovich said. "If you get in a situation where there's good synergy between management, coaches and owners, you're probably going to have a better opportunity to keep a core together, understand what the system is going to be and how to add to it each year rather than blow it up every two years."
"I was in Boston a long time and we ran the same system, and it worked," Rivers said. "Not because of the new guys. Because you have the old guys and everybody falls into place. Duncan is such a great leader. He does it every night, in the same way every night. Parker does it every night, Ginobili does it every night, and so from that point on, it's pretty easy for everyone to fall into it. Because if they don't, I mean if those three guys are doing it, everyone else almost has to."
The Clippers are no strangers to the Spurs at this point. Two seasons ago they were swept out of the second round by San Antonio and they almost always serve as a reminder of how far the Clippers have to go to become championship contenders.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get to where they are and accomplish what they've accomplished," Blake Griffin said. "But the goal is to eventually have that core group of guys, and everybody else, when you come in and play, you fall right in line. They kind of have the model of the NBA and how you want to run things. Guys can be sitting out, they can have guys injured, and it doesn't matter. Guys are going to come in and do exactly what they're supposed to. If they don't, they don't play on that team. It's impressive."