MIAMI -- The NBA plans to make San Antonio pay for resting four stars.
The Miami Heat almost could not.
Ray Allen's 3-pointer with 22.6 seconds left gave the Heat the lead, LeBron James finished with 23 points and the Heat rallied late to beat the Spurs 105-100 on Thursday night -- needing to dig deep despite San Antonio's decision to have four standouts resting at home in a move that irked NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Gary Neal had 20 points for the Spurs, who played without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green. The Spurs' top foursome was sent back to San Antonio by coach Gregg Popovich, who said the move was in his team's best interest. Stern wasn't happy about it, calling the move "unacceptable" and saying that sanctions against the Spurs will be forthcoming.
Tiago Splitter scored 18 points, Nando De Colo added 15, Boris Diaw scored 12 and Matt Bonner had a 10-point, 10-rebound night for San Antonio, which finished a six-games-in-nine-nights road trip with a 5-1 record.
The Spurs led by seven with about 5 minutes left and were up 98-93 after Neal made a 3-pointer with 2:14 remaining.
The Heat finished on a 12-2 run, needing yet another late-game rally.
But all anyone will likely remember from this one is Popovich's decision -- and whatever Stern does as a result.
"I apologize to all NBA fans," Stern said. "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
Stern's statement was released roughly the same time as tip-off in Miami for the nationally televised game.
The Spurs' five starters came into the game averaging a combined 23.6 points, or 1.6 points less than James averaged entering Thursday night.
And when the Heat ran out to a 16-6 lead, it seemed as though a blowout was in the offing. After all, even the oddsmakers in Las Vegas expected it to be that way -- the Heat were favored by six points in most sports books before the news broke that the Spurs' regulars were resting, after which the line swelled to 13.
Apparently, no one told the Spurs that the second-string was supposed to play second-fiddle.
San Antonio closed the first quarter on a 21-6 run, taking a 27-22 lead after the period, and simply did not go away. The Spurs led by as many as seven at one point, and after James Anderson made a pair of free throws with 0.6 seconds left in the third, San Antonio held a 76-73 lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
But once again, James-to-Allen proved magical for Miami.
With the Heat down by one, James nearly lost the ball in the lane, collected himself and kicked it out to Allen, who connected from the left wing to put Miami ahead to stay.
Thing is, no one ever thought it would come down to a play like that.
Before the game, Popovich said he decided to sit his core when he saw how challenging this particular part of the schedule was for his team. Thursday's matchup ended a six-games-in-nine-nights swing for the Spurs, who won their first five on the trip.
"Everybody has to make decisions about their schedule, about players playing and back-to-backs and trips and that sort of thing," Popovich said before the game. "In our case, this month we've had 11 away games, after tonight. We've had an eight-day trip and a 10-day trip, and we're ending it with four (games) in five nights here. I think it'd be unwise to be playing our guys in that kind of a situation, given their history."
It's not unlike other moves Popovich has made before; in fact, not only did he give Duncan, Parker and Ginobili time off together toward the end of last season, which was condensed by a lockout, he actually flew home to San Antonio with them and took a two-game, pre-playoff sabbatical.
This time, when Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green flew home -- reportedly on a Southwest Airlines flight on Thursday from Orlando, where the team played one night earlier -- Popovich stayed with the Spurs for the trip to Miami.
Duncan is in his 16th NBA season, Parker his 12th and Ginobili his 11th. Green is a kid compared to those guys -- 25 years old and a veteran of only 110 NBA games -- but Popovich said he chose to rest him as well because Green has played a lot.
Green leads the Spurs with 496 minutes played this season, which was 44th-most in the NBA entering Thursday's games. The Spurs aren't expected to practice Friday, then they face Memphis on Saturday in San Antonio.
"Perhaps it'll give us an opportunity to stay on the court with Memphis on Saturday night," Popovich said. "Historically, when you're on a long road trip, that first game when you come home is really tough. And Memphis is one of the best teams in the league. They're of much more concern to us than playing four games in five nights. It's pretty logical."
Given Stern's statement, it's also logical to think that the Spurs could know their penalty by Saturday as well.
Popovich also said facing the Heat had nothing to do with his decision.
"I've gotten letters from those people before when I've done it and I understand their perspective totally," Popovich said. "If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I'd want him or her to see everybody. And if they weren't there, I'd be disappointed. So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective, what my priority is -- the basketball team and what's best for it."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Popovich's move didn't affect Miami's preparation.
"Each organization has a big-picture view of what they are trying to get accomplished and I think the league respects that," Spoelstra said.
In this case, apparently not.
NOTES: A moment of silence was held before the game for Sasha McHale, the daughter of Houston coach Kevin McHale. Sasha McHale, 23, died Saturday. ... It was the third straight home game in which Miami trailed in the fourth quarter. ... The back-and-forth game ended a run of blowouts in the Heat-Spurs series. The previous five meetings were decided by an average of 24.8 points, including three 30-point games -- two of those Spurs wins in San Antonio, the other a Heat win in Miami.