This not only drew the ire of NBA commissioner David Stern, but also turned what was sure to be a great game into one that was heavily in Miami's favor.
Those four players were catalysts for the Spurs on both sides of the floor, so why sit them and put the game on the line?
Just the same, Popovich defended his decision:
Everybody has to make decisions about their schedule, about players playing and back-to-backs and trips and that sort of thing. In our case, this month we've had 11 away games, after tonight. We've had an eight-day trip and a ten-day trip, and we're ending it with four (games) in five nights here. I think it'd be unwise to be playing our guys in that kind of a situation, given their history.
Miami did indeed win the game, but here's the crazy part—San Antonio's reserves nearly brought home the win, and lost by just five points, 105-100.
Gary Neal led the way for the Spurs with 20 points, and Tiago Splitter contributed 18 of his own to go with nine rebounds.
Popovich thus went from being the nut of the day to a coaching genius.
If there was any doubt about him being the best coach in the league going into the game against Miami, the performance from the Spurs' reserves silenced any of that.
Forget the fact that Popovich has won four championship rings as San Antonio's coach, and has gone 847-399 since taking over the Spurs in 1996. The man is clearly a master at putting a team together, with or without star quality.
Keep in mind, the nine Spurs players who participated last night only averaged a collective 15.2 minutes per game. Of that group, only three averaged over 20 minutes per contest—Neal, Splitter and Boris Diaw.
This is a testament to how great Popovich is at getting the best out of his players.
It's obvious that in practice, he somehow drives home a point that anyone can be called on to play a significant number of minutes at any moment, and thus must be properly prepared.
Everyone was certainly prepared for Miami, and it showed through their play on the court.
Even in defeat, San Antonio out-rebounded Miami 45-37, and matched them in assists with 22.
This game appeared to be a blowout waiting to happen, and instead it turned into one of the best games of the season.
Everyone was playing signature Spurs basketball.
Matchups were chosen beautifully, the players were communicating well, nobody was jealous of one another and they were playing together as a team.
And it was all thanks to their coach recognizing their potential and setting his rotation as such.
That said, David Stern can whine all he wants.
The fact is that Popovich did everything he could to win against Miami, even without his starters. His idea, as crazy as it was, almost worked perfectly.
It also cemented his status as the NBA's best coach, and his second unit will continually remind teams of that for the rest of the season, and well into the playoffs.
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