Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs falls as he guards Luc Mbah a Moute #12 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

Nothing is more important to Gregg Popovich during the Spurs regular season than reaching the NBA playoffs with a roster that is healthy, well rested, and playing at optimal level. Always keeping an eye on what he deems the real goal of the regular season, Popovich has become the NBA’s master of monitoring the well-being of his most veteran players.

The process of selectively resting players is easier when the standings don’t get in the way. One of the best starts in franchise history, 23-5 heading into Thursday’s game at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, eliminated the guesswork for Popovich when he decided to send Manu Ginobili home from Houston after Tuesday’s dramatic win over the Rockets.

Ginobili had played a huge role in the Spurs’ comeback from 13 points behind in the fourth quarter in Houston, including an improvised pass to Patty Mills to set up the game-winning basket. But, the fact that the Spurs began the night with the second-best record in the NBA, trailing only the Golden State Warriors, made ordering extended rest for the 39-year-old veteran of 14 previous NBA seasons a relatively easy decision.

After a 106-101 loss to the Clippers, just the second loss for the Spurs in their last 11 games, they still have the second-best record in both the Western Conference and the NBA.

Popovich swears he doesn’t even look at the standings through the first half of the season. The first 41 games, he said in pregame remarks made available by the Clippers, are an exercise in discovery.

“For me, the early season games, the first half of the season, are more committed to making sure our team knows how they want to play; situations that develop that need to be handled in certain ways; for me, what players I want on the floor in critical situations and (learning) who plays best with whom,” Popovich said. “All those things need to get ironed out in the first half of the season, so the record doesn’t really mean much. Whether we are .500 or have a really good record, or whatever, doesn’t really reflect much. All the things I mentioned are what we worry about.

“For instance, I don’t watch film. I didn’t watch any Clippers film. I won’t watch Portland film (for a game on Friday night against the Trail Blazers). There’s enough going on with your own team you can correct and take care of that will help you win games.

“In the end,” Popovich said, “it’s basketball, and it’s all the same principles and techniques that have to be mastered.”

Popovich and his players discovered Thursday that the Clippers remain a tough matchup, even when All-star power forward Blake Griffin is missing. Griffin is expected to miss three to six weeks of action after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to remove “loose bodies” in the joint.

Paul Pierce, an 18-year veteran small forward who had appeared in only eight previous games this season, started in Griffin’s spot against the Spurs. That gave the Clippers a small ball look, but the Spurs never managed to leverage their size advantage during the 10 minutes Pierce was in the game. Backup big man Maurice Speights did a pretty fair impression of Griffin, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 27 minutes.

The Spurs also learned that the Clippers have a potent bench, as their reserves outscored the Spurs’ bench players, 58-33, a rare domination off the bench for the Spurs that can’t be explained away solely by Ginobili’s absence.

Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points to lead the Spurs, but needed 19 shots and 10-for-11 foul shooting to get them. The Spurs made only 37-of-92 shots, 40.2%, matching their second-worst field goal percentage of the season.

Clippers All-NBA point guard Chris Paul scored a team-high 19 points, with seven rebounds and six assists, before departing with a strained left hamstring with 4:33 left in the third quarter.

The loss was just the second on the road this season for the Spurs, who had won 15 of their first 16 away from AT&T Center.

They will play their third road game in four nights on Friday, meeting the Trail Blazers in Portland. For that one, Popovich is adding 36-year-old center Pau Gasol and 34-year-old point guard Tony Parker to the list of resting veterans. He held LaMarcus Aldridge, his No. 2 scorer this season (16.3 points per game) out of the fourth quarter so he would be a little fresher against the Blazers

“I just did what I thought was best,” Popovich said of switting Aldridge in the final period in Los Angeles. “Well, in the second half when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, I’d rather have him tomorrow, because we are not going to have Pau [Gasol], we are not going to have Tony [Parker]. So I need to have him tomorrow.”

After all, it’s the first half of the season, a time for discovery, always with an eye to the playoffs.

Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.