Joel Blank: As the stakes go up, the numbers will go down in Mike D'Antoni's rotation

Mike D'Antoni will shorten his bench as the stakes get higher. Rockets.com

We all know by now that the Rockets took a little while to get it together and get going in this season's playoffs.  In the opening round against Minnesota, they almost blew the first game at home and alternated games in which Chris Paul and James Harden were major contributors. But in the end, they did what they were supposed to do and took care of business as they eliminated Minnesota in five games. Because of the team's lack of consistency, coach Mike D'Antoni used the majority of his playoff roster throughout the series.

As Eric Gordon struggled and Luc Mbah a Moute was out with a shoulder injury, they needed to go deeper in the rotation to assure a series victory. Houston was not the well oiled machine that coasted to the best record in the NBA and No. 1 seed in the West, yet they still got the job done and advanced to the next round. Next up, the Utah Jazz in the West Semifinals.

Utah is a young, athletic, defensive minded team and Houston is going to have to keep turnovers down, limit mistakes to the bare minimum and find more consistent play on offense. With James Harden and Chris Paul finding their rhythm both individually and as a back court duo, that's a good start and a recipe for success. The return of Mbah a Moute should improve their team defense, but also take more minutes away from the Rockets reserves. D'Antoni is a veteran coach and he only plays guys he trusts. Look no further than Montrezl Harrell in last years playoffs to understand that point and how true it is. Harrell was a rotational player in the regular season, but come playoffs he couldn't sniff the floor, even after Nene was lost with a season ending injury. So I say all that, to warn all of Red Nation that a few of your favorite reserves may be relegated to waving pom poms and towels instead of knocking down jumpers and running the hardwood. That's how it played out in the Rockets 110-96 win in Game 1 over the Jazz, when the Rockets used just four players off the bench until the last minute.

With Ryan Anderson finally healthy and returning to the active roster, Gerald Green fans should prepare for your favorite reserve to get less and less playing time. For as good as Green was during the regular season, it appears that Anderson is the guy that will get the call as a wing scorer off the bench going forward.  Anderson started for most of the season and even though he doesn't bring much else to the table other than his shooting touch, he is a solid veteran that won't hurt you with bad decisions or forced shots. D'Antoni wants and needs players that are predictable and reliable and Ryno fits that bill. Green has been known as a gunner throughout his career with no conscience. It has long been in his scouting report that Gerald can shoot you into a game and he can also shoot you out of one. D'Antoni knows that for all Green can bring to the table when he's hot, it's the potentially irreversable damage that could preset itself when he's not that has him leaning towards Anderson.

With Eric Gordon coming on late in the Minnesota series, he’s regained his standing as the 6th man in the rotation. That means that the Joe Johnson experiment is probably over. Johnson has had an amazing career and has always put up solid numbers, but it has been apparent since he joined the Rockets, that he has finally started to decline and doesn't have the 1st step or the quick release that he has had in the past. Johnson and Green are still good insurance policies to have in case of injury or inconsistency with Anderson and Gordon, but it looks like they are the odd men out.  

Similarly, Nene looks to be an afterthought as a backup big man this year. With PJ Tucker playing more and more minutes alongside Clint Capella in the starting lineup and with Mbah a Moute also back and expecting major time in the front court, the game plan seems to be smaller is better and that does not bode well for Nene.  For the 2nd year in a row the Rockets nursed Nene through the regular season to keep him healthy and fresh for the playoffs. However, last year all that rest got Houston was a premature, season ending injury to the veteran big man and that put the Rockets at a disadvantage when they faced the Spurs and their big front line. This year it looks like it will be the versatility of Tucker and Mbah a Moute that sits Nene and not an injury.

Unless there is a blowout either way, the Rockets rotation will only include 8 to 9 players. After the starting 5 of Ariza, Tucker, Capela, Paul and Harden, only Anderson, Gordon and Mbah a Moute will make the grade for significant minutes. The others will be relegated to being cheerleaders with an occasional number called to fill a certain situational need or play call. The good news is even though these guys won't be seeing significant minutes, they are great insurance policies in case someone gets hurt or slips up as Houston continues its quest for another NBA title.  In my opinion, this team has the deepest bench in the NBA and it's a good problem to have if your the coach trying to find the appropriate players and minutes for your playoff rotation.

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Another win for the Coogs! Photo by Getty Images.

The Cougars were supposed to play a game in Tampa against The University of South Florida on Jan. 14th, but this contest was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within the USF program. Houston was able to take advantage of the extra time off to rest their players and prepare for their next game against UCF.

Their previous game against the Knights in Orlando on December 26th was a close matchup which saw UCF and the Cougars tied at halftime. The second half was a back-and-fourth contest between the two teams, but Houston was able to come away with a nine point victory.

This game however was nowhere near as close and their previous meeting.

Houston immediately got off to a 12-0 start thanks to four straight 3-pointers from DeJon Jarreau (2x), Marcus Sasser & Quentin Grimes.

The Cougars continued to surge past the knights and at one point led 38-9 with 3:43 left to go in the contest.

Houston led 45-19 at halftime, their largest first half lead of the season.

The Cougars were able to maintain their commanding lead with both efficient scoring early on and elite level defense. Houston forced UCF to commit 20 turnovers that resulted in 22 points for the Cougars.

The Cougars won most of their games this season with commanding defense, dominating the boards and superior guard play. All three boxes were checked as Houston was able to secure a 75-58 victory.

UCF did outscore Houston in the second half 39-30, but the Cougars' lead proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to overcome for the Knights. Essentially, Houston was on cruse control the second half of the game and never saw their lead drop below double digits.

Grimes scored in double figures for his 11th straight game after opening the season with eight points against Lamar. Senior forward Justin Gorham scored a season high 15 points as well.

Houston has now won its fourth straight game since its loss to Tulsa and now remain in sole position of 1st place in the AAC.

The Cougars moved up from No.11 to the 8th ranked team in the country as multiple top-ranked teams suffered losses over the week.

Kelvin Sampson passed former Houston coach Tom Penders as he earned his 650th career win. This also moves him into sole possession of 41st place on the NCAA wins list. He is also the second winningest coach in Houston Cougars Men's Basketball history behind only the great Guy Lewis.

UP NEXT: Houston looks to exact revenge against the only team to defeat them this season as they host Tulsa at the Fertitta Center on Wednesday at 7pm.

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