The Lakers had arguably the best team win of the year on Monday night, beating San Antonio without Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant. On paper, L.A. didn't appear to have much of a chance, and that's exactly how the game started. The Spurs jumped out to a 9-0 lead, and dropped 34 first-quarter points on the Lakers. But led by Pau Gasol, L.A. stormed back and coasted to a 101-89 win.
In past years, I would have questioned the Lakers sitting out their two stars. If you've listened to my show, you know that one of my pet peeves in basketball is when a team doesn't try to win every game.
But I'm going to reverse field on that, and I'll try to explain why.
Between them, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have won eight of the last eleven NBA Championships. But they have different philosophies of how to get there.
Popovich believes that regular season games are not the most important thing in the world in regards to the big picture. If any of his players have an injury, he will often sit the player out completely, rather than risk one of his guys making the injury worse. Popovich has been known to sit guys even when they're not hurt. He's had an older, veteran team for a few years now, and sometimes he'll even sit older players on the second night of a back to back.
A couple of years ago, the Lakers led the Spurs by six at halftime of a regular season game. L.A. extended that lead to 16 in the third quarter during a period when Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were all out of the game. Rather than put them back in, he simply let the reserves finish and gave his stars a break.
I asked Popovich about that after the game, and he was unapologetic, to say the least.
"Our guys weren't good," Popovich said, "they (the Lakers) were controlling the game, and it became obvious that wasn't going to change."
At the time, I was offended by his attitude. I always felt that the teams and coaches owed it to the fans to at least try to be competitive. If I pay top dollar to see Duncan and Parker, how can he sit them in a game that isn't decided yet? Isn't that, in a way, false advertising? I pay to see Parker, and I get Jacque Vaughn?
Back then, I put all of these questions to Phil Jackson.
"You play the game in front of you," Jackson said, "that's the one that matters. If you have a chance to win that game, you owe it to your team to try and win it. But things happen, and each coach needs to deal with whatever comes up."
As it turns out, in Monday night's game, it was the Lakers who rested two starters and the Spurs played everybody. And the Lakers won anyway. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I have a new appreciation for the Popovich position.
There's a reason Popovich has won four titles, and I'm a sideline reporter. He knows what Phil Jackson laid out for the media after he moved to the top of the Lakers all-time wins list last week.
"I've learned over the years that this is a marathon, not a sprint," Jackson said. "The most important thing is that your team is playing well into April and May."
Jackson told the story of his 2001 championship team. The Lakers weren't the top seed that year - San Antonio was. But L.A. dialed in at the end of the regular season, and became white hot. The Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs, including a sweep of the Spurs.
The bottom line is that I know how beat up Kobe Bryant is right now, and I know he would play if this was a playoff week. But I'm glad he isn't, and fully support the decision to sit him. I feel the same way about Andrew Bynum.
If I'm going to encourage Lakers to sit, I can't be outraged when the Spurs do it. Although I think that San Antonio does it more than any other team, it works for them. And as Phil Jackson says, what really matters is how the team is playing down the stretch.
So although I've rallied against it for years, I'm changing my tune. If a coach wants to sit a player, more power to him.
Just make sure he doesn't do it in late April or May.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.