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Popovich has done this before and he knows what’s best for his team,” former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT. “It’s his job to manage his players and do whatever he’d like. He’s thinking about the big picture.”

Another former player turned TNT analyst, Steve Kerr _ who played for Popovich _ also defended the franchise’s actions.

“If the NBA punishes the Spurs for sitting players, it opens up a huge can of worms,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is a serious legal challenge for the league.”

The Spurs did break a rule by not reporting to the league, opponent and media that the quartet would be absent, as teams are required to do as soon as they know a player isn’t traveling because of injury. But even if they fulfilled those obligations, that wouldn’t have addressed the ones Stern believes they have to fans.

That San Antonio _ largely unloved in its championship days but suddenly a plucky underdog cheered by those who felt Stern overstepped his bounds _ nearly won the game likely did little to sway the commissioner.

The league has an expectation that fans paying hundreds of dollars should get what they paid for. On Friday, the Phoenix Suns announced a “satisfaction guaranteed night” next Thursday against Dallas, offering fans a rebate if they didn’t enjoy their experience in what the team called a first-of-its-kind promotion in the league.

But nobody buying a ticket can be assured of seeing his favorite players. The Heat occasionally sat their superstars late last season for what the organization termed a “maintenance program,” and a late-season matchup against the Celtics included the following DNPs: James, Wade, Bosh and Boston’s Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.

Then there are the neutral-site preseason games the league stages in markets where fans rarely get to see the NBA live. Signs outside the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. before a Celtics-Knicks matchup in October featured pictures of Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, although neither played despite being healthy.

If Stern reaches in now, does he reach that far? Or will there be a separate set of guidelines depending on the calendar?

Popovich is a military man, the kind unlikely to blatantly blow off established rules. Stern refused to put such rules in place in the past and now may need to make entirely clear the expectations demanded of his coaches.

Popovich wouldn’t comment on Stern’s statement Thursday, and the Spurs were unavailable Friday after a long road trip.

They were resting.