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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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Martin Truex Jr. won his 2nd race of the season last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

NASCAR returns to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. This is the first of two races here at this track as they will race on Sunday afternoon. This will be different from the normal night race they usually have here as this will definitely affect the racing surface considering how much the sun could make the track slick. It should be a fun race come Sunday.

Last week, Martin Truex Jr. passed Denny Hamlin to capture his second win of the season after rain moved the race to Sunday. He became the first driver to win multiple races after a fierce battle with his teammate Denny Hamlin. The race was filled with tons of wrecks including a fifteen car pileup including Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. It was one of the better races of the season as there was lots of beating and banging.

The race was not without controversy but not the kind you would expect. Early in the race Rick Ware Racing teammates Cody Ware and James Davison were involved in an altercation. The two were battling towards the back of the pack when Ware decided to drive through his teammate in turn four. The race got much worse for Cody Ware as he was involved in three more cautions all throughout the race. Many people around the sport were quite perturbed by his antics including broadcaster Mike Joy as he was audibly annoyed after Ware spun out later in the race. Many have questioned if the fifth-year driver should even be in the car and overall I can understand why some of those people think that. In his five years of driving, he has finished on the lead lap one time. I hope that he is able to figure it out and find success in the future, but this was not a good look.

The slump continues for two-time champion Kyle Busch

Throughout the race, Busch was running okay for the most part but towards the closing laps of the race he and Chris Buescher got together triggering a fifteen car pileup. Despite all this, he was able to rebound to a respectable tenth place finish. This has been more than likely the toughest stretch of his career since his championship in 2019. Many would say that the omission of Practice and Qualifying has really affected his performance. Whatever the issue is, this team really needs to find some speed, or he could be in danger of missing the playoffs. I look for this team to bounce back considering how talented he is.

Prediction

The driver that I have winning this week is Kyle Larson. This has been an incredible rebound season for Larson as he currently sits fourth in points. He is also second in laps led only to Denny Hamlin. Richmond has been a great track for him as it fits his driving style perfectly as he can run the outside line and find grip where others can't. This track is also rather sentimental to him considering he won his first pole award here during his rookie season in 2014. While he may not have the results he would want he has always been extremely fast here and even won back in 2017. I look for him to capture his second victory of 2021 come Sunday.

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