Gregg Popovich elected to institute a questionable set of decisions during Thursday's contest against the Miami Heat, and the San Antonio Spurs ultimately paid the punishment—a controversial $250,000 fine.
He chose to sit stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, as well as prominent role player Danny Green. Popovich did this to give them some rest, and to increase San Antonio's chances of success against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The move was made in response to their strenuous schedule, with the Miami matchup being the team's fourth road game in just five days. The Heat, on the other hand, were in a much more favorable situation, having only played two games in the previous eight days.
Even with their starters, Popovich likely viewed the game as a lost cause. He ultimately chose to sacrifice the game in return for future success.
David Stern imposed sanctions following his decision, stating that the move was a "disservice to the league and our fans." However, while the fine itself is catching headlines, the game's result is an enlightening outcome in and of itself.
The Spurs starting lineup featured the likes of Nando De Colo, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter—a group of players that most fans would scoff at, especially when facing the defending champions. Popovich likely didn't expect too much from his team's unconventional lineup. A blowout seemed imminent.
However, the roster of nine role players and reserves took a much different approach. Contrary to speculation, the team entered the game as if the circumstances were normal. They played solid basketball for 48 minutes.
Despite facing a star-studded lineup, the shorthanded Spurs garnered a lead that lasted until the closing minutes of the game, when a Ray Allen three sealed a five-point win for Miami.
In the standings, the game is marked a loss, although few can argue that the Spurs should be disappointed with the outcome.
In a game that shouldn't have been remotely close, Gary Neal notched 20 points, Splitter contributed 18 as well as nine rebounds and Matt Bonner finished with a double-double. The Spurs finished within five points of the defending champions on the road, a feat that means so much more than a paltry tally in the loss column.
On January 29, the Spurs traveled to Dallas to face the Mavericks on the road. Unlike this season, the Spurs had come out of the gate slowly, with just a 12-9 record prior to the game.
Dallas took an early lead. When Jason Terry hit a three pointer with about three minutes left in the third quarter, Pop benched the starters in the assumption that the 18-point deficit was too substantial to recover from.
A lineup consisting of Gary Neal, Danny Green, James Anderson, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter entered the game, and immediately turned the tables. They closed the gap, and were just milliseconds from winning the game in regulation before it was sent to overtime—where they lost by one.
Like the recent game against the Heat, the loss itself meant very little. An unorthodox five-man-set replaced the starters, and played the entire fourth quarter and overtime period.
From there, the Spurs went on to win 11 straight games, with eight being on the road. It was a turning point in the season, the moment in which the Spurs matured from "pretenders" to "contenders." The bench immediately amended any previous faults, and it became apparent that the Spurs were a championship contending team.
The recent loss to Miami presents several similarities to that season-changing game last January.
Both saw tremendous success without their starters, and while both ended in a loss, many consider each game to be a victory (figuratively speaking).
Excluding the one customary starter that made an appearance—DeJuan Blair—the bench came through, playing near-perfect basketball that impressed even Chris Bosh.
"We survived, and we won. They have a bunch of talented guys over there. I know that nobody's going to really give them credit, but they are a tough bunch."
So in the end, while the NBA world is focused only on the dispute between Pop and Stern, something much larger came out of this game.
On national television, a group of players who most fans couldn't even identify, came within a minute of beating one of the best—if not the best—team in the entire Association.
The Spurs were labeled contenders from the season's start. However, many still feared that age would be too great a factor to allow them to make a strong run at a title.
But the team proved to be astonishingly efficient during this game, even without Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Green (not to mention Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard, who are both sidelined with injury). If the team can compete with a top-tier squad without their stars, they are dangerous once everyone is present.
Last year's turning point was a loss in which bench players excelled, and Thursday's contest bears striking resemblances. If the aftermath is the same, the Spurs should come out of this game with their heads held high and make a strong run at a fifth title.
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