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Popovich Plays Duncan and Parker and Also Plays God

We've gone over San Antonio Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich's decision to pull his two best players on Tuesday against the Portland Trailblazers pretty thoroughly. My original post is here and Steve Perrin's more thoughtful followup post is here. The argument for and against Pop's decision were pretty rigorous and I thought it would be worth a followup on the situation... because last night, the other shoe dropped, and the Spurs, on the last day before the All-Star break and the last game of a long road trip showed up in Denver to play the Nuggets. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were in the lineup and both played with vigor and intensity. Duncan played 30 minutes, Parker played 35. For their part the Nuggets are still playing without three of their starters and four rotation players. The result? The Spurs were up by twenty-six at the half. Denver made a run in the second half but San Antonio won by fifteen. The boxscore is here.

I originally lauded the coach's choice in Portland by saying, "I think Popovich made a great decision." But two days later, after reading all the arguments (especially Erik O's impassioned opinion) I wonder if I was right. I think I was wrong.

So what? The Nuggets are limping badly after the first half of a strike-shortened season, they've got a lot of injuries, they've been on a losing streak lately and things just are what they are. San Antonio is two and a half games in front of the LA Clippers (my heart flutters a little at this, halfway through and Clips are in THIRD!) a distinct, if not comfortable lead. (The standings are here).

So no big deal for SA, right? No big deal for the Clips either. Rest your senior guys, screw over a few fans in Portland but whatever. But further analysis of the division standings reveal that Portland now sits at 18-16, eighth in the conference, and Denver is ninth at 18-17. The two teams are half a game apart... and Popovich's decision to compete against one, and fold against the other influenced those standings, because if Portland is 17-17 and Denver is 19-17, Denver has the eighth seed and has it by two games! A one-and-a-half game swing!

Gregg Popovich didn't just throw a game, he made a choice. He didn't just violate "the spirit of the game" as our Fearless Leader suggested, he changed the course of the Western divisional race. I'm going over this this morning and my mind is changed, not because some fans were denied seeing the Spurs stars, but because you can't make a choice like that in the middle of a fight for the playoffs... and that's exactly what this is... a sixty-six game fight for the playoffs.