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How Mike D’Antoni mastered the big man rotation

There are many reasons the Rockets are winning, by Mike D’Antoni’s ability to use his bigs is one of them.

NBA: Preseason-Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this Rockets season, no one would have figured this Houston frontcourt to be a strength of the team. In fact, most had it pegged as one of the team’s biggest question marks.

Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell were talented but unproven, Nene was skilled but injury-prone and over the hill, and Ryan Anderson was equally as injury prone and couldn’t defend a lick.

And while we’ve seen evidence of all of those traits to varying degrees throughout the season so far, they’ve also been something else: good. And while it’s a credit to those players for the way they’ve maintained their skills and/or how much they’ve improved, it’s also a credit to coach Mike D’Antoni for knowing how to use them all.

D’Antoni’s rotations during the current seven-game win streak have shown him to have his finger directly and adeptly on the pulse of this squad. Let’s take a look at how each big has been doing:

Montrezl Harrell

We start off with perhaps D’Antoni’s best work. After bouncing in and out of the lineup for most of the first several weeks of season, D’Antoni has given Harrell minutes in the last eight consecutive games. It’s no coincidence the Rockets are 7-1, including the current seven-game win streak, during that time.

During the streak, Harrell is averaging 8 points and 3 rebounds in 15.5 miutes per game, modest numbers for sure (although 16 and 6 per 36 is nothing to sneeze at), but it’s been his ability to contribute down the stretch that’s really stood out. D’Antoni has used Trez at exactly the right times.

Harrell has played key fourth quarter minutes in six out of the last seven, and it was his play in particular against the Golden State Warriors that helped maintain the Rockets effort and energy through the overtime period. He finished that game with 13 points, 10 rebounds and a block, and his relentlessness was a key factor in the Houston victory.

He’s also played key fourth-quarter minutes against the Thunder, Celtics and Mavs before taking a back seat in the Nets game to this guy:

Nene Hilario

Nene has admittedly looked, at times, every bit his 34 years of age. The 15-year veteran has struggled with consistency, and despite flashing glimpses of the Nene of old, is highly limited on his minutes and sits on the second night of back-to-back games. In fact, he’s racked up a DNP in three out of the last seven games.

But in true veteran fashion, the guy stays ready when really needed. He played some key minutes down the stretch in Monday’s shaky win over the Nets. Capela was mostly getting torched by Brook Lopez (who finished with 26 points) all night, and despite leading for the vast majority of the game, the Rockets found themselves losing as the fourth quarter ran down.

D’Antoni stuck with Nene down the stretch, and the decision paid off. The man from Brazil grabbed a key board, knocked down some free throws and helped lead the Rockets to a hard-fought win over Brooklyn. Nene played 8 of his 24 minutes in the deciding fourth frame and once again, D’Antoni showed an uncanny knack for using the right big man at the right time.

Ryan Anderson

The best thing Mike D’Antoni has done with Ryan Anderson is stay consistent, even though the Rockets’ biggest offseason acquisition (at least financially) started the year off slow. Anderson’s averaged just 12.8 points per game, his lowest since 2011, through the Rockets first 25 games, and although his three-point percentage of 39.4 is the second-best of his career, you can tell he just didn’t quite look comfortable to start the season.

D’Antoni stuck with it, continued to start Ryno and play him significant minutes in almost every fourth quarter, and sure enough, Anderson has responded.

During the Houston win streak, Anderson’s scoring 14 points per, indexing more than a point higher than his full-year numbers, and he’s increased his rebounding from 5.6 to 6.0 and has looked effective on the offensive glass at key times.

Perhaps the most important part is that his minutes have stayed flat on the win streak at 30.9 per game (30.8 on the whole season). This is a veteran player and shooter who’s had a pretty extensive history of success. He’s also one of the team’s top offseason acquisitions. But he was entering an entirely new system, and the best thing D’Antoni could do was give him time to work through his slow start.

And sure, he’ll never be a great defender, but he does have his best defensive plus-minus since the 2012 season. Ryno looks to be finally rounding into shape, and it’s a credit to D’Antoni for not pushing the panic button when Anderson started the year slowly.

Clint Capela

Though he’s tailed off a bit during the win streak, Capela is still one of the early front-runners for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. And the slight dip in his stats while the Rockets have been winning owes more to a slight pullback in minutes than it does to negative play by Capela. And that pullback in minutes owes to the emergence of some actual depth in the Houston frontline, which is most definitely a good thing.

Capela’s 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds during the streak are just slightly less than his 12 points and 8.3 rebounds on the whole year. His 22.3 minutes per game are a small drop-off from the 25.2 he’s averaged on the year.

But Capela is and will remain the starter, and the Rockets tend to go to the Swiss Roll early, establishing the danger of the pick-and-roll feed from Harden, which then opens up other facets of the Houston offense. D’Antoni often uses his presence off the lob to set the tone for the entire game.

He hasn’t been playing huge fourth quarter minutes during the streak as he still struggles with stamina at times, and Harrell’s been like a fourth-quarter fire cracker, but he’s the best rim protector on the roster. The coach won’t hesitate to go to him in the fourth, as he did against the Mavs before the starters were all pulled towards the end. He’s even increased his free throw shooting to 46.8 percent, which might not seem like much, but as he approaches hitting one out of every two at the line, he’s more likely to see even additional time at the close of games.

And this isn’t even all for the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni has given forward Sam Dekker time at the power forward position in a “fast” lineup, allowing the Rockets even more flexibility. And they may have the return of Donatas Motiejunas still to come depending on the resolution of his free agent situation.

The coach has a lot of options at his disposal, and his ability to play the right guys at the right time has not only been a catalyst to the Houston win streak, but also the 18-7 record that has the Rockets tied for third in the Western Conference and one of the biggest surprises of the early NBA season.