You could say that the debate between resting star players for the playoffs and giving fans what they paid to see all started five years ago in Miami.
On November 29, 2012, the San Antonio Spurs were scheduled to play the Miami Heat in a nationally-televised game on TNT. But there was more to it than that.
The Miami Heat were the reigning NBA champions and both teams were tied for the best record in the NBA. However, both were coming into the game under very different circumstances. The Heat were coming off of four days of rest, all at home, while the Spurs were about to play their fourth game in five days.
From the outside looking in, a conspiracy theorist could easily posit that the NBA was offering up the Spurs as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the reigning NBA champs and reigning MVP LeBron James.
I still remember the lead-up to the game. While writing for another publication, I suspected that Pop would bench or at least limit the minutes of his stars and veterans for that game but didn't think that he'd go so far as to send them home.
But that's what he did. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green all flew home to rest up for an important conference matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies two days later.
As a result, the Spurs rolled out a starting lineup of that consisted of two point guards and three guys designated as centers: Nando de Colo, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and Matt Bonner.
The debate was raging before the game started. Word had spread on social media and the TNT pre-game show almost exclusively concentrated on whether what Pop did was right for the league, for his team, and for the fans.
And then the game started.
The Spurs got off to a slow start but eventually started trading buckets with the Heat. The conversation shifted from the debate over resting players to how embarrassing it would be if the Heat lost the game and analysts pointing out the impressive job that Popovich was doing with the players he had on the court.
This was the narrative that Charles Barkley was pushing throughout the game as the contest in Miami was one of the few he called in-person for TNT.
At the end of the 4th quarter, no one was talking about that anymore, as the Spurs were primed to pull off what would be considered one of the greatest, if not THE greatest regular season win in franchise history.
Guys were stepping up and hitting big shots. The most memorable for me was Nando de Colo, a rookie who lasted less than two seasons in the NBA, hitting a three-pointer to put the Spurs up by seven with five minutes left.
It looked like they might do it. Gary Neal came up clutch with another three-pointer to put the Spurs up five with two minutes left.
Ultimately, the Heat had closers and the Spurs didn't.
Miami had to put on a furious rally to ultimately win the game 105-100. When Ray Allen hit the go-ahead three, the Heat were pumped up and the crowd was juiced into excitement. You'd have thought that Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were all on the court.
But they weren't. And no matter how well the Spurs played without them, the NBA and Commissioner David Stern didn't care. He was mad and he punished the team.
Stern fined the Spurs $25,000. But that wasn't the only fallout from the game.
The Spurs beat the Grizzlies two days later, a much more important game for the sake of tiebreakers in the playoffs. It's a good thing the Spurs rested too because that game went to overtime.
San Antonio eventually finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference, beating the Denver Nuggets for that spot by ONE GAME. As a result, they got to play the LA Lakers in the first round of the playoffs and swept them, giving them plenty of time to rest before playing the Golden State Warriors, who upset the Nuggets in the first round and pushed the Spurs to six games before the Silver and Black won on their way to the NBA Finals.
They lost to the Heat in the Finals that year but got their revenge and won the next, thanks to Popovich strategically resting his best players during the season and keeping them fresh for the playoffs.
He continues to use the strategy to this day and it's been adopted by other teams since that game five years ago, particularly LeBron James. How else could you explain the fact that he continues to play at an MVP level as he's taken his teams to the NBA Finals seven consecutive seasons!
And to think, it all started with that classic that no Spurs fan will ever forget. All we can do is watch the highlights and remember that this is just another example of why Pop is the greatest coach of all time.