HOUSTON — For the Rockets, the best thing about their fourth consecutive loss was that it was lopsided enough for coach Mike D’Antoni to decide to pull his overworked starters with more than seven minutes remaining.
“Obviously, it’s a problem,” D’Antoni said. “It’s something that I know that the front office tried to address. They’re going to do the best they can. No blame going around; it’s just the way it is.”
The Rockets played without star guard Chris Paul (hamstring) and key reserve wing Gerald Green (ankle). D’Antoni indicated that he expects both players to return for Friday’s road game against the San Antonio Spurs and that backup center Nene Hilario is close to being ready for his season debut after being sidelined by a calf strain.
“Then our depth is pretty good,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got everybody a couple of rungs up. We’ve got rookies playing as the sixth or seventh man. They should be ninth, 10th men. They would be OK every once in a while, but when you rely on them, it’s tough. And it’s not their fault. They’re going to develop. Again, we’re just going to have to knock on wood and make sure they stay healthy.”
The only Rockets reserves to play non-garbage time minutes against the Mavs were recent G League call-up Danuel House Jr. and undrafted rookies Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein. The Rockets entered the season counting on minimum-salary additions Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams to play key reserve roles, but the team opted to part ways with Anthony after he struggled, and Carter-Williams has fallen out of the rotation.
Four players on the Rockets, who are second to last in the Western Conference standings with a 9-11 record, have averaged more than 36 minutes during the losing streak, which has included two overtime games. D’Antoni believes that fatigue has played a significant role in the Rockets’ recent struggles and is concerned about the long-term effect if he can’t lighten the loads of James Harden, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon, in particular.
The Mavs’ bench significantly outplayed the Rockets’ starters early in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, killing any hopes of a Houston comeback after Harden (25 points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists and six steals) led a rally to cut the deficit to seven points at the end of the third. Mavs reserve guards J.J. Barea (13 points, 12 assists in 18 minutes) and Devin Harris (20 points, four assists in 15 minutes) dominated during a 20-6 run that led D’Antoni to pull his starters.
“I do worry about the minutes,” D’Antoni said. “I pulled them early tonight because it’s kind of stupid to play them [late in a blowout]. Periodically, we might have to take a game off just to see what happens. Make sure that — as much as we can; there’s no science that says it’s going to be foolproof, but as much as we can — we’ve got to preserve our guys. Win the games we can, get in the playoffs and then have a full slate of people and go at it.”
Harden has averaged 42.3 minutes per game during the four-game skid, with Paul missing the past three contests. Harden acknowledged that the heavy workload for the Rockets’ healthy regulars has been a problem, but he expressed confidence that Houston would get back on track soon.
“We’ve done it already,” Harden said. “We went through a tough stretch, and then we regrouped and won five in a row — and we looked really good. We’ve just got to figure it out. We’ve got a lot of new guys, and it’s only 20 games into the season. We’ve got 60 more to go.”