Mike D'Antoni defends short rotation

PHOENIX -- After his team scored a season-low 76 points and was outscored 28-10 in the fourth quarter, Mike D'Antoni said it just about every way you can say it:

"I think we ran out of gas. … [The Suns] had more athleticism, more energy and more legs than we did. I think we were tired; we just kind of got stuck in mud."

And yet, D'Antoni left four healthy players on his bench until garbage time Monday, subbing them in with less than three minutes remaining and the Lakers trailing by 17 in their eventual 99-76 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

The coach, in essence, played just seven players for the second game in as many days and saw no problem in doing so.

"It means I got seven guys that I'm really confident with and I'm not going to take out," D'Antoni said afterward.

D'Antoni is actually confident in nine players, but Kobe Bryant (left ankle) and Pau Gasol (right foot) were both out.

While Gasol has been sidelined for the past six weeks, D'Antoni had cut down his rotation to just eight players, with Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison coming off the bench to replace starters Steve Nash, Bryant, Dwight Howard, Earl Clark and Metta World Peace.

The eight-man crew had obviously been working for L.A., as it had won 10 out of 13 games since the All-Star break coming into Monday. When Bryant couldn't play the last three quarters against the Indiana Pacers on Friday or at all on Sunday against the Sacramento Kings, D'Antoni simply played seven guys and won both games.

The 113-102 win against the Kings might have seemed easy enough, but it required 27 points from the 36-year-old Jamison, and it was the first time L.A. had won a game using seven or fewer players since Jan. 24, 1992, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Monday was a different story and D'Antoni should have recognized it as such.

It was the mother of all back-to-backs for L.A., not because Phoenix is such a formidable opponent with a record that's more than 20 games under .500 even after the win, but because it marked the end to a brutal stretch of the season for L.A. -- nine games in 14 days played in seven different cities.

Why not give the 22-year-old Darius Morris, who started 17 games for L.A. this season, some burn early and see what he could bring? Or the 23-year-old Devin Ebanks? Or the 23-year-old Robert Sacre? Or Chris Duhon, whom D'Antoni has praised repeatedly for staying professional even when he's not playing.

"We just kind of hit the wall," Nash said. "You could just kind of see the wheels fall off, especially lately with guys injured and playing a seven-man rotation. I think it caught up with us a little bit."

D'Antoni was defiant about his decision to keep his rotation the way it is.

"We're down eight [points in the fourth quarter], what do you want me to do? Take Nash out because he's going to miss the next 3?" D'Antoni said. "I don't know he's going to miss the next 3. Take Dwight out? What are you going to do? That's hindsight, and most people on the other side are real good at it and they're pretty clear, but it's hypotheticals that mean absolutely nothing."

D'Antoni said the fact that he didn't consider doling out some minutes to those other players "means that they're not playing well enough to play."

But it didn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Monday was a unique situation. L.A. clearly could have used some fresh bodies with Phoenix running around guys such as Wesley Johnson (14 points, nine rebounds) and Kendall Marshall (11 points, five rebounds and five assists), who were spry as can be from playing only sparingly in the first half of the season when they were not playing well enough to play.

If Morris or Duhon had played 20 minutes against Phoenix, it wouldn't mean D'Antoni would have to expand his rotation by one moving forward.

The loss dropped L.A. to 5-9 on the second night of back-to-backs. Fortunately, there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs should the Lakers make it, but that stat should have been enough evidence for D'Antoni to know it's been a problem area for his team, especially when it was going to be without Bryant.

"It's not easy to play on a back-to-back," Howard said. "We go out there and we give it our all. If we don't have it, then we got to trust that somebody else will."

When asked about the short rotation, Morris said all the right things: "Coach does what he feels best, what he's comfortable with. Obviously, it's been working as of late, so as a person out of the rotation, you just be a good teammate and keep working hard for whenever your number is called."

But he also added a pretty clear truth: "You know that you do provide some fresh legs."

The Lakers get a break in the schedule now -- three days off before their next game, at home against the Washington Wizards, when Bryant and Gasol could both be back -- so from here through the final 13 games of the regular season, fatigue might never be an issue again the way it was Monday.

But on a night when the Lakers could have put another game between themselves and the Utah Jazz, which also lost, for the eighth seed or gained some ground on the Houston Rockets in the chase for seventh, the fact that those other guys weren't given a chance doesn't seem so much like a meaningless hypothetical.

It seems like a missed opportunity.