By Rob Mahoney
SAN ANTONIO -- Sunday's matchup between the Spurs and Heat has been circled on the calendar as both a cross-conference battle of giants and a one-time obstacle to Miami's now-halted winning streak. But the game will likely bear little resemblance to the the affair suggested by its considerable hype.
Before tip-off, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra confirmed that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers -- three of Miami's top four players in minutes per game -- will all sit out with minor injuries and have been declared as "day-to-day."
It doesn't take much work to connect the dots between those absences and San Antonio's group vacation from a game against Miami in November, when Gregg Popovich opted to send Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home rather than play them in a nationally televised game. Popovich was fined $250,000 by the NBA as a result of the decision, though that punishment could be related to Pop's unabashed gamesmanship as much as the decision itself. When asked about the Heat's lineup-clearing decision, Popovich -- ever the press-scrum showman -- responded with mock incredulity.
"What kind of s--- is that?" Popovich said. "Are you kidding me? What a bunch of rummies! They're doing that? Who would think of something like that? That's below the belt. There's no place for that."
Spoelstra, for his part, has a fair bit more plausible deniability than Popovich did; James did suffer a right hamstring injury against the Hornets on Friday, while Wade and Chalmers are nursing ankle injuries. Even if all three players were theoretically able to compete in a game of higher stakes, it seems unlikely that Spoelstra will be tagged with so hefty a fine, if one is incurred at all. As further help to his case, Spoelstra also rebuffed the notion that his decision was a direct response to Popovich's lineup chess move earlier in the season.
"I could see how you guys can draw that conclusion, but no," Spoelstra said.
It remains to be seen if those in the league office will buy Spoelstra's deflection, which of course invites a hilarious element of differentiation to the way that NBA coaches control their rotations and lineups. Popovich was unabashed in resting his best players to the point of sending them home; Spoelstra's move may not be so obvious, but that the margin of difference between the two coaches' decisions is worth $250,000 out of pocket creates a silly division between two functionally congruent strategies.