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Why D’Antoni’s small-ball lineup doomed the Houston Rockets in opener

Houston Rockets Mike D'Antoni (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Mike D'Antoni (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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In an exciting finish, one minor tweak could have prevented the Houston Rockets from losing a big lead against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Houston Rockets seemed to channel all of their offseason hype into on-court energy on Thursday as they came out of the gate hot, establishing a quick 17-5 lead. They played at a frenetic pace that caught the Milwaukee Bucks off guard, but Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer was able to make adjustments as the game went on.

Leading 87-78 going into the fourth quarter, Mike D’Antoni‘s Rockets seemed primed to get the season off on the right track. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez had different ideas, though. Taking advantage of Houston’s small-ball lineup, Giannis caught fire early in the fourth to lead Milwaukee on a furious comeback.

To start the fourth quarter, D’Antoni sent out a lineup of P.J. Tucker, Ben McLemore, Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha. On paper, it looked like a good balance of wing defense (Tucker and Thabo) mixed with offense from Gordon, McLemore and Russ. On the court, however, Antetokounmpo went to work on the smaller Rockets.

Giannis started the final frame with a finger roll layup, dunk, 21-footer, turnaround hook in the paint and then an assist to an Ersan Ilyasova 3-pointer. Much of this was done with P.J. Tucker as his primary defender, who does a great job on man-to-man coverage — against normal players.

The Rockets were able to stick with Milwaukee thanks to a flurry of buckets by Westbrook, but that’s when more of the Bucks’ size took over the game. With just under six minutes remaining, Brook Lopez went to work: nailing a three, a hook shot from inside, assisting to Ersan, making two free throws and then burying an 11-footer with less than 40 seconds remaining.

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The biggest question that arose after the game, and rightfully so, was why a big such as Tyson Chandler or Clint Capela wasn’t inserted once Giannis and Brook started taking over the game. To Coach D’Antoni’s credit, he did insert Capela into the lineup for a five-minute stretch but then inserted an ice-cold Eric Gordon for him with 2:17 remaining.

Chandler, however, who had played just 11 minutes to that point, was nowhere to be seen in the fourth despite a very strong showing in his limited time. When asked about the size mismatch problem by Rockets Insider Alykhan Bijani, D’Antoni had this to say:

I asked Coach D’Antoni postgame if he considered putting Clint Capela or someone with size back in the game late because the Bucks kept posting up Brook Lopez: “No. P.J (Tucker) is our best defender in the post. So, no.”

— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) October 25, 2019

While yes, P.J. Tucker is a great defender in the post as well as overall, it doesn’t seem wise to leave a 6-foot-5 forward as the primary defender on a 7-foot Brook Lopez or a 6-11 Giannis with what seems to be a 100-foot wingspan. Given D’Antoni’s fixation on offense, I get the feeling that his late-game lineup was more focused on outscoring Milwaukee than stopping them.

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The good news for Rockets’ fans is that Thursday’s game was only day one. D’Antoni has shown in the past he can make adjustments when needed — he will just need to recognize when they are needed a little bit sooner to avoid more late-game collapses.

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