Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni seems to have finally done what everyone here at TDS has been asking for: expanded his playoff rotations.
He’s run a notoriously tight ship in years past, especially in the postseason, often times capping his rotation at eight guys, sometimes squeezing it down to seven. But with the Rockets infamously wearing down last season, and potentially useful players Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and Troy Williams never seeing the light of day, it’s a refreshing development to see the coach utilize a nine-man rotation throughout the majority of the postseason thus far.
Sure, the Rockets are deeper this season than they were last year, but remember, D’Antoni was also known for a short bench in his other coaching spots as well. No, this is a recent development in his coaching philosophy that has thus far paid dividends this postseason and is one of the reasons the Rockets are 8-2 through the first two rounds and have been performing at or near the top of all playoff teams in postseason offensive and defensive efficiency.
It’s also the reason the Rockets have a chance to not only make this a competitive series against the Golden State Warriors, but to have a real shot at winning it against a modern NBA juggernaut.
The great thing about this Rockets team is that not only can they go nine deep, but they can do it in variety of ways. So far this postseason, it’s been the starting lineup of Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela, with the bench consisting of Eric Gordon, Nene, Gerald Green, and either Luc Mbah a Moute or Ryan Anderson.
Anderson has recently fallen out of the rotation entirely, as he came back from late-season injury looking tentative and gun-shy. And if Ryno isn’t shooting, he’s not usually contributing much. He has historically struggled defensively against the Warriors, but it just feels like he’s due to have a big game in this series, doesn’t it? He certainly did on opening night, with 13 points and 8 rebounds, including some monster boards down the stretch.
D’Antoni’s alluded to getting him back involved should the Rockets make it this far, and now that they have and will be forced to play mix-and-match with Steve Kerr’s killer small-ball lineups, he very well could have a part to play in this whole thing yet.
If Anderson does get minutes against Golden State, don’t expect it to come at the expense of Luc Mbah Moute or P.J. Tucker, who will both be needed more than ever this series for their versatile defensive play against the Dubs’ high-powered attack. The Rockets, as always, will be switching almost everything, and both of those guys can guard every player on the floor, especially when the Warriors inevitably do go small.
Where you might see Ryno steal some minutes, however, is from Gerald Green. Green’s gun-slinging mentality is everything the Rockets wanted from Anderson, yet weren’t getting, and his energy and hometown enthusiasm have been a huge spark for Houston this postseason. But he’s also a defensive liability, especially against a team like Golden State who do a great job at targeting their opposition’s weak links. He can’t rebound like Ryno does.
Green did have a 29-point game on 8-15 shooting from deep in Houston’s loss to the Dubs back on January 4, however, so both he and Anderson may get a chance to show who has the hot hand in this series.
Someone else who might have an outside shot at seeing time this series could be the heretofore unplayed Joe Johnson. Johnson wasn’t yet on the Rockets for any games in the regular season matchup, and though he hasn’t been great offensively since coming to Houston, the Rockets could trot him out as an additional competent one-on-one defender to help stymie the Dubs’ attack. Should the Rockets not get the offense they need from Green or Anderson to counteract their negative effect on defense, Johnson was brought aboard for just such an occasion. I’m not saying we’ll definitely see him, but don’t rule it out in times of garbage or desperation.
But perhaps Houston’s most intriguing rotation question lies at what to do at the center position. Clint Capela, who’s been making a name for himself with a dominant postseason run, in which he’s outplayed both Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, will obviously draw the start, but the question is, how long can he hang when the Dubs go small?
He averaged 25 minutes per game in his three games against the Warriors this season, slightly below his regular average of 27.5, and he grabbed just a total of 19 rebounds against Golden State, which shows the Warriors’ ability to limit his effectiveness somewhat.
This is also a bad matchup for Nene, who played in just one of the three games between the two teams this year, and we’re not about to see Tarik Black unless circumstances become dire from a injury standpoint.
Houston’s best option to counter the Dubs may be the famed Tuckwagon lineup with P.J. Tucker at center. We would then see Ariza or Mbah a Moute at the four, with Paul, Harden and Gordon providing the scoring punch from the backcourt.
How D’Antoni manages the minutes at the center position is the key to the entire series. It’s one of the places the Rockets can really play matchups. If Capela remains red hot, the Dubs could be forced into giving serious minutes to JaVale McGee, and that’s a scenario that leans in Houston’s favor.
But the Rockets also just happen to be one the few teams with the personnel to counter when Golden State inevitably moves Draymond Green to the five. As the Rockets have said publicly many times; this is a team constructed to matchup with the Dubs, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the five spot.
Ultimately, these are two teams who have been performing at the exact same level thus far in the playoffs. What’s going to put one of them over the top are the coaches and how they play their matchups and rotations.
Thankfully for the Rockets, their head coach has grown his philosophy this year into a full-fledged nine-man group with the right combination of hard-nosed, versatile defense and long-range shooting to complement their two superstars. And while it’s the players who ultimate have to win or lose the series, it’s the decisions of the coaches and the matchups they play that could weigh the favor to one of these evenly matched teams.
For their first time in a while as a fan of the Rockets, that thought doesn’t scare me.