Rockets beat Mavericks using historically small lineup

HOUSTON -- Coach Mike D'Antoni took small-ball strategy to historic extremes during the Houston Rockets' 128-121 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rockets became the first NBA team to play an entire game without a player listed taller than 6-foot-6 since the New York Knicks in a Jan. 31, 1963, loss to the Chicago Zephyrs.

It's history the Rockets will probably repeat soon, as 6-foot-10 starting center Clint Capela continues to deal with a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot that has been bothering him for several weeks, causing him to be in and out of the lineup. D'Antoni told Capela that he "shouldn't come back until he's pain-free," which might not be until after the All-Star break.

In the meantime, playing small makes sense to D'Antoni, even with 7-foot reserve centers Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein available.

"We're 2-0 with it," D'Antoni said, referring to Monday's 126-117 road win over the Utah Jazz, in which the only playing time logged by a Rocket taller than 6-foot-6 was Hartenstein's six minutes off the bench. Danuel House Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha, both listed at 6-foot-6, were the tallest Rockets to play Friday.

D'Antoni cited the damage Rockets star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook did against Dallas with a wide-open floor as reason to stick with small ball. Harden had 35 points -- including 14 in the fourth quarter, when the Rockets held off a Mavs rally -- and six assists. Westbrook had 32 points and nine assists.

"When we're getting to the rim, it's pretty devastating, so they better beat us up inside pretty well before we have to change," D'Antoni said. "We won't blink too quick.

"The underlying thing is we're just really trying to open it up for James and Russ to get to the rim so we can get layups. Those are the best shots -- and fouls. That lineup permits that. Now, can you play that well enough defensively and rebounding to make them blink and they go small? Or do their bigs impose their will? That's the challenge, and we'll see. If we play hard and we're attentive to details, it'll work."

Mavs big man Kristaps Porzingis, standing 7-foot-3 with skills, presented an immense challenge for the Rockets. Porzingis scored a season-high 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting -- attempting only four 3-pointers, well below his norm with the Mavs -- and grabbed 12 rebounds.

"It's challenging, especially when you got to guard bigger guys like tonight, [with] Porzingis under the basket," said Harden, who jumped the opening tip for the first time that he could remember at any level. "It brings the competitiveness out of you. You've got to compete, you've got to be physical, and that's when you rely on your teammates."

However, the Rockets outscored the Mavs by 11 points in the 36 minutes played by Porzingis.

"It's crazy," Porzingis said of the Rockets' extremely small starting lineup, which featured 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker at center. "It's the NBA of today -- a lot of mismatches, a lot of trying to open the floor. It happens, especially with them. They play that way. Everybody is open, and James Harden or Westbrook create something, and they kick out the ball. They're good at what they do."

According to Westbrook, Porzingis is an exception in the modern NBA as a 7-footer who can cause problems against the Rockets' switching scheme and smaller defenders.

"I mean, ain't that many that you've got to worry about, honestly, that you've really got to pay close [attention]," Westbrook said. "Porzingis is a rare case, being able to shoot it and score inside. There's not many that we've got to really worry about that, that we've got to change our whole philosophy behind."

The Rockets are willing to risk giving up buckets to opposing big men to create opportunities for Harden and Westbrook to attack one-on-one with shooters spacing the floor, preventing rim-protectors from roaming the paint.

"Me against any defender, I know I can get to my spots and get what I want," Westbrook said. "If they do help, I'm able to make the pass and make the right reads. If it's one-on-one, I can get anywhere I want. There's really nothing nobody can do."

The Rockets managed to beat the Mavericks despite being outrebounded 52-37. D'Antoni cited rebounding as the biggest challenge to playing small.

Tucker had only one rebound in 36 minutes, but his primary responsibility is to box out the opposing big man. The Rockets are relying on Harden and Westbrook to grab the lion's share of the rebounds. Harden had 16 rebounds against the Mavs -- his most in a game since Dec. 31, 2016 -- and Westbrook grabbed six.

"It shouldn't be a problem, but there will be times that they reach over you and they score," D'Antoni said. "People will go, 'Ohhh!' We're not going to shut them out, but I think over the long haul, we can be a lot better than we were tonight, and we can guard. A lot of it is just individual. You've got to hunker down, and let's go and get in front of the guys.

"If we do that and we get conscientious about boxing out and getting back, we could make this lineup pretty good."