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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Laremy Tunsil's absence is something to note after missing time last season. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The Houston Texans took to the field for OTA practice on Wednesday. Here are 11 observations from the practice.

1. Derek Stingley doesn't take full reps yet. Stingley is working up to full reps after last year's injury-plagued college season. Lovie Smith said the plan is to work to get Stingley, as well as other rookies, up to full reps in practice.

2. Despite not having full reps, it doesn't mean the third overall pick can't impress. Stingley did well in the drills with other defensive backs showcasing his agility and quickness. During one of the team drills, Stingley effortlessly matched step for step with Chris Conley on a play that finished on the other side of the field. It was also surprising to see Stingley working on punt returns as well.

3. It is just shorts and helmets so not much can be gleaned from the team's other first-round pick Kenyon Green. Green worked at left guard with a variety of other offensive linemen. Lovie Smith made it clear there are currently no first, second, or third teams for the Texans. Green's pre-season analysis will pick up when training camp and pads roll around.

4. Max Scharping looks to be in phenomenal shape. The former second-round pick has been a disappointment in his time with the Texans. Scharping enters a year when he will need to battle to remain on the roster. It seems the delicacy of his roster spot led to an incredible offseason for Scharping.

5. Laremy Tunsil and Maliek Collins are two veterans who are not at the optional team activities. Lovie Smith detailed he has spoken to any player who isn't here and understands this is indeed optional.

6. With Laremy Tunsil missing, Charlie Heck saw snaps at left tackle. The team's right tackle for the majority of last year looks, like the above-mentioned Scharping, to be in great shape. He was moving well on a few of the plays which required the line to get out and block.

7. Roy Lopez, who was a surprise contributor last year, had what would have been a great play in a full-speed game situation. Lopez darted past the offensive line sniffing out a reverse and tapped the receiver as he went by. It would've been a 10-yard loss and a smushed wideout in a live game.

8. Nico Collins had a few nice plays. Collins displays his athleticism and he made some nice cuts in his routes to get open.

9. Pharaoh Brown and Marlon Mack had two bad drops in the team portions. Brown made up for it later with the catch of the day, sliding to haul in a Davis Mills pass near the sideline.

10. This is not an impressive tight end group overall. Not yet, at least. There are several new faces and their actual tight end abilities are unknown to this point. Brevin Jordan had some nice plays in the open field and Davis Mills found him a few times on dump-off passes. Rookie Teagan Quitoriano didn't practice today.

11. Davis Mills operates with the calmness of a player who is the for sure unquestioned starting quarterback. As he should, that's what he is for the Texans. Mills didn't show off a lot in this practice but he didn't make too many mistakes. There was a wideout miscommunication that almost went for an interception. There is a clear emphasis on getting the ball out on time for Pep Hamilton's offense. Mills had a few chances to drive a deep pass, but opted for a quick pass to not hold onto the ball too long. This should be expected and obvious, but he isn't anywhere near the quarterback I saw last year have one of the worst training camp practices of all time.

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