MIAMI -- The NBA's most powerful man and its most respected and iron-willed coach plunged into an unexpected battle of wills Thursday over a basic tenet: A coach can decide what is best for his team.
San Antonio's Gregg Popovich sent stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, plus key role player Danny Green, on a commercial flight home instead of playing them in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat so they could rest ahead of the Spurs' Saturday home game against the league-leading Memphis Grizzlies.
NBA commissioner David Stern issued a statement before the game started apologizing to fans and saying, "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
After the game, Popovich was informed of Stern's statement and declined to comment.
"I would never react to something I don't know about or haven't read or heard," he said.
The Heat won 105-100, needing a 3-pointer from Ray Allen with 22.3 seconds left for the winning points.
"I don't think Pop was in the wrong; it's not in the rules to tell you you can't send your guys home," said LeBron James, who had 23 points in the Heat's fifth straight win. "The commish made his decision and everybody else will deal with it."
The Spurs were playing their fourth game in five nights, their sixth game of a road trip and their 11th road game in November. Popovich, as he's done in the past in such situations, decided it was best to rest his front-line players. In addition, the Spurs were without key players Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard because of injury, leaving them with just nine players in uniform.
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the NBA Coaches Association, weighed in on the situation Friday.
"As President of the NBA Coaches Association, I am always going to work to protect coaches and decisions coaches make to protect their teams," he said. "The NBA will undoubtedly examine all the facts before making any decision on this matter. The fact that San Antonio played such a great game and were in position to win with their depth players is extremely impressive."
Last season, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the Spurs would not be disciplined after not bringing Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to a road game in Utah. Overall, Popovich held his top three players out of three games for rest last season.
"The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams," Silver told NBA.com in April with the qualifier that it was a lockout-shortened season. "And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second guess."
According to league sources, the Spurs never had been questioned in the past for Popovich's periodic decisions to rest players and not take them on the road. He has done it a handful of times dating back to the 2008-09 season but never before in November.
"It's the best thing for our team," Popovich said before Thursday's game. "Everybody has to make decisions about their schedule. We've done this before in hopes we're making a wiser decision and not a macho decision. Perhaps, it'll give us an opportunity to stay on the floor with Memphis on Saturday night."
Teams routinely rest top players during the regular season, most often in the final weeks before the playoffs. The NBA has not announced any recent fines for resting star players. There were fines for such actions previously. The Los Angeles Lakers were known to have been fined in the later stages of the 1984-85 and 1989-90 seasons for resting stars before the playoffs.
Popovich said he made the decision about Thursday night when the schedule came out in July, and it didn't matter the opponent or the interest level of the game, which pitted the Western Conference's second-best team thus far against the NBA's defending champions.
In their previous three games, the Spurs beat the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic over the past four days. Those teams have a combined record of 9-34, and the Spurs won the three games by a collective 52 points.
"It would've been great if we won," Spurs forward Matt Bonner said after hearing of Stern's statement after Thursday night's game. "I think coach Pop is trying to do what he thinks is best for our team in the long run."
The Heat, like many teams, use a dynamic ticket-pricing system. Tickets for the game against the Spurs cost more than tickets against other lower-profile teams in the league. Popovich said he was sensitive to the ticket-buying fan, but it did not change his mind.
"If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I would want them to see everybody, and if they weren't there, I'd be disappointed," Popovich said. "So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective. My priority is the basketball team and what is best for it."