San Antonio Spurs Coach Greg Popovich chose Thursday to send his Big Three — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (and Danny Green) — home rather than have them travel to Miami to play the Heat.

Fans who had paid top dollar for Spurs-Heat were upset. Hoops purists took their outrage to Twitter. Fantasy enthusiasts moaned. Commissioner David Stern, who is just over a year away from his retirement, was shocked, shocked to see this sort of thing happen in a nationally-televised game on TNT. He fired off a statement promising promising some sort of doom:

“I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

It was disappointing for fans, who pay dearly and deserve to see stars and not understudies. But, as a coaching maneuver, it made sense. No doubt the national TV audience played into Stern’s outrage, with one of the West’s best teams playing the East champions, but Popovich believed he could win with what he had. And he very nearly did, with the spunky Spurs subs leading until the last minute and then falling, 105-100.

For Popovich, who’s pretty good at making moves that win championships, the choice was one that coaches make all the time. His team was facing its sixth road game in nine nights against a team playing its third game in 12 nights, so he sent his Big Three Plus One home on a Southwest Airlines flight. (“Want to get away?”) “Pop has won a lot of games,” the Heat’s Ray Allen said. “He’s won championships. He knows what he’s doing.”

Popovich explained that “If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I’d want him or her to see everybody. And if they weren’t there, I’d be disappointed. So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective, what my priority is — the basketball team and what’s best for it.”

CBS Sports’s Ken Berger points out that the decision doesn’t break any rule and the San Antonio Express-News reports that Popovich did this three times with his vets down the stretch of the 2011 lockout-compressed season. Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner who will step up when Stern steps down, indicated in April that these sorts of decisions would not draw discipline. “The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” Silver said then (via USA Today). “And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”

Clearly, Stern disagrees and far less clear is his definition of “substantial sanctions.” For Popovich and the Spurs, a fine might be tolerable. Anything more could have significant repercussions. The Spurs have a big home game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday, a compelling reason to rest Duncan, 36, and Ginobili, 35, and Parker, 30. Popovich, whose team has played 10 of its 16 games on the road in November, told Jeff McDonald of the Express-News that this decision was made ages ago, when the schedule was released. “I don’t think it was a tough decision at all. It was made when the schedule came out [in August].”

Popovich did this without consequence in 2009 when the Spurs were playing in Denver, according to Buck Harvey of the Express-News. What’s different now? T.V., that’s what.

Popovich has … been consistent over the years, and now Stern isn’t. He will fine the Spurs not because of what they did, but when they did it.

Berger writes that “Popovich exercised his responsibility as coach to decide who plays and how much. Also, Popovich raised an inappropriate finger to the NBA schedule makers and to the concept in general that everyone in the NBA is part of a show — and to the notion that the show often conflicts with his other priorities.” Popovich, Berger believes, decided to make a statement.

Popovich could’ve done what countless NBA coaches have done over the years. He could’ve told Duncan to stay at the team hotel and informed the media that he had the obligatory case of “back spasms.” Or he could’ve sent Parker back to San Antonio with a phantom case of “flu-like symptoms.” But no; he’s Pop. And since he’d never heard a word from the NBA office about resting his players in the past — and since nobody in Washington or Charlotte or Sacramento gets fined for putting a far more dreadful product on the floor 82 nights a year — Pop told it like it was.
And commissioner David Stern didn’t like it. And perhaps in a sign that his imminent retirement isn’t coming a day too soon, Stern the lawyer committed the cardinal sin of lawyering. He went to trial with a case he couldn’t win.

There isn’t a great deal of recent precedent for punishment here. The Los Angeles Lakers were fined $25,000 in 1990 when Pat Riley rested Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the regular-season finale. The Lakers also were fined in 1985 when Riley rested Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in another regular-season finale.

Now, the question is: just what will Stern do? Just what should Stern do?

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