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David Stern has every right to ‘Pop’ the Spurs

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich right talks DeJuan Blair (45) Gary Neal (14) during time out first half

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, right, talks to DeJuan Blair (45) and Gary Neal (14) during a time out in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

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Whom do you side with -- David Stern or Gregg Popovich?

Updated: November 30, 2012 8:47PM

No matter how much anyone loathes NBA commissioner David Stern and everything he stands for, Gregg Popovich is the bad guy in the Spurs-Heat fiasco last night.

As expected — certainly as Popovich expected — Stern is drawing most of the heat for his reaction to Popovich’s decision to sit Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat last night.

Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 on Friday for a ‘‘disservice to the league,’’ by sitting Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green ‘‘without informing the Heat, the media or the league office in a timely manner.’’

Regardless of whether Stern has the right to punish Popovich for sitting his best players in a marquee game that Stern’s customers paid a premium to see, he has every right to point out to Popovich that it’s bad for NBA business. And that if Popovich truly wanted to rest his players after having played three games in four days, he could have handled it a better way — a way that respects both his best interests in keeping his best players fresh, and the NBA’s best interests in giving its biggest audiences what they paid for and what they expect to see.

It’s not a matter of league rules, it’s a matter of discretion. Popovich had other options and he knows it. He could have sat the players out in lower-profile games against the winless Wizards or the 5-8 Magic. He could have sat Duncan one night and Parker the next.

Instead, he chose to stick it to Stern and the league by sitting all four players at the same time against the defending NBA champions. And it’s not like Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were whipped coming into the Heat game. Duncan played 27 and 23 minutes against the Magic and Wizards. Parker played 30 and 22. Ginobili played 24 and 20.

And Tony Parker should be embarrassed that at 30 years old he can’t play four games in five nights in the NBA. He and Duncan are averaging 31 minutes a game this season. Ginobili is averaging 24.

So while Stern attracts the most criticism, it’s Popovich who deserves to be rapped for instigating the incident. Yes, four games in five nights at the end of a road trip is difficult. And Popovich, who has regulated his star players’ minutes like a maestro over the years, has a right to keep his players fresh. But there was a better way to do it and he knows it. Do you really think the Spurs were better off resting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili against the Heat and not the Wizards or Magic?

That the Spurs nearly beat the Heat even without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili doesn’t justify the move. What a surprise that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Co. played an uninspired game against a short-handed team. The Heat needed a Ray Allen three-pointer to beat the 3-9 Cavaliers in their previous game. They needed overtime to beat the Bucks in the game before that. They’re coasting, too. They’re just doing it with all their players.

But Popovich has been living a charmed life since Larry Brown hired him as an assistant with the Spurs 25 years ago. It eventually put him in a position to give himself the coaching break of his career — as general manager of the Spurs in 1996-97 he fired Bob Hill, hired himself as his replacement and announced that David Robinson would be returning from an injury.

And when Robinson suffered another injury, he sat him and other injured players for the rest of a lost season, lost 42 of their final 53 games, then won the lottery and Tim Duncan. Popovich obviously is a very good coach. But he’s been living off that gambit ever since. The one time he went into the postseason without Duncan, he lost in the first round to the Scott Skiles’ Suns.

Popovich can do what he wants with his roster, but he can pace his team through a season without flouting convention so egregiously. The Bulls could have sat Michael Jordan against every bad team they could have beaten without him. But they didn’t.

Jordan’s Bulls used to play four games in five nights on the road, too. In 1998, Jordan played 33 minutes against the Nuggets in his fourth game in five nights. Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper played 31. Dennis Rodman played 30. Jordan was nearing 34. Pippen was 32. Harper was 34. Rodman was 36.

Somehow, they made it through. Jordan, in fact, missed only seven games in the 12 full seasons he played with the Bulls. He paced himself in a way that kept the interests of himself, the Bulls and the NBA in mind.

Gregg Popovich owes most of his career success to the NBA — his only previous head coaching experience was at Pamona College. He might want to give a little more consideration to the league’s interests instead of just his own.

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