Gregg Popovich isn’t sure that anyone should see his decision to send the majority of his starters on a plane back to San Antonio as a huge surprise.
“It’s the best thing for our team,” he said, quite plainly, to reporters before the Spurs took on the Miami Heat on Thursday night.
There was a long pause, a moment where no one knew what to say. Popovich awaited the next question.
He hoped that people would see it from his perspective: that it’s what was best for an aging Spurs starting roster that has asserted their dominance on the league year after year.
“If our best players were 23, or 25 years old, we might have done something different,” Popovich said. “It’s pretty easy to understand. I don’t think it’s so amazing.”
After all, who should know better than the man who has been at the helm for 16 seasons, longer than any coach in the big four sports and held a .681 record in the regular season.
Sending league-veterans Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili home to rest up for Saturday’s contest against Memphis might have seemed unreasonable, considering the Spurs were taking on the reigning champions at AmericanAirlines Center.
Guard Danny Green has just a fraction of the professional experience of the other three starters, but he’s played more minutes than anyone on the roster at 494. Popovich put him on that plane too.
It might have even seemed foolish when San Antonio was looking to keep their road record perfect against a team that hasn’t lost at home yet.
But Charles Barkley, a TNT commentator, was understanding, saying that beating the Heat was going to be tough no matter who was starting.
“[Popovich] has got to look at the big picture for his team,” he said. “They’ve played four games in five nights.”
The Spurs led the Heat 27-22 through the first quarter, shooting 47.3 percent from the field even without their four top scorers in the building. By halftime, the Spurs were trailing by just three points, despite turning over the ball 10 times.
In a quiet San Antonio locker room, Popovich’s doctrine was working. There was no evidence of worry, or apparent fear that the game ahead might be anything more than a regular day at work.
“Obviously those guys mean a lot to us. … We know what they can do, and we know what we can do,” Spurs’ rookie Cory Joseph said. “Not having them here, we have to take up their half and play extra hard.”
It wasn’t an exaggeration from Joseph; the four missing Spurs were responsible for more than half of San Antonio’s 1,641 points this season.
Joseph averaged 5.3 minutes per game entering the game. By the end of the third quarter, he’d been on the court for 15 minutes in a game where no one could have predicted that the Spurs would be leading the Heat 76-73.
If anything, Miami should have been trying to top its largest double-digit victory over San Antonio, not fighting to keep the fire burning.