Houston Rockets, Alperen Sengun and a smooth rotation

MILWAUKEE — If it seemed like a safe assumption all summer that Alperen Sengun would become the Rockets’ starting center, it might have seemed more obvious on Saturday that he would start now that Bruno Fernando is out with a sore left knee. .

He does not have. And it was an entirely understandable, perhaps even audacious move that wasn’t just justifiable for the Rockets on their brutal, unscheduled night against the Bucks; that might have been the best thing for Sengun.

That could quickly change. More clashes to come could call him into the starting lineup. But against the Bucks, like in the game against the Grizzlies the night before, Sengun was well served to stay in his backup center role.

“With (Brook) Lopez as a pick-and-pop type guy, I wanted to have Jabari (Smith Jr.) on him, and then I wanted to give us (Usman Garuba), the opportunity to keep Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and use his speed and physicality and all that,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said after the Bucks edged past the Rockets, 125-105.

Lineups, he had said, could continue to be fluid, match-up-based.

The first two games explained why the initial move was so much better than Silas could.

Fernando set up screens, cleared the room and put a big body on crosses, including the brawny Steven Adams.

Sengun could post and play his way with the second unit, even intimidating smaller substitute centers. He was outstanding and effective offensively, still playing roughly the starting minutes against the Grizzlies (although his second-half playing time could have been increased with Fernando’s absence). He closed the game with the Rockets starters.

A valid argument can be made that Sengun’s importance to the Rockets’ rebuild means he should play with Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. to develop chemistry and a functional fit with the backcourt.

There are counters to this argument: it is, and it will be.

This is not a baseball lineup that cannot be changed mid-game. A rotation, especially in a reconstruction, is fluid. The early games echoed this, with Sengun, Porter and Green closing out Game 2 together. They often played together during Sengun’s 23 minutes on Saturday and would have had more had the three not been taken off when the bench was cleared with 3:47 remaining.

Against the Bucks, it made sense to start Garuba, removing him from DNP-CD status to deal with Antetokounmpo, although almost everyone got their turn as Antetokounmpo scored 44 points on 17 of 21 shots.

“Giannis is hard for anyone to keep,” Silas said. “The way he turns to the euro and moves around and gets to a place where a normal person pulls a hook and he spins and puts the ball down is surprising to some of our guys. Depending on how long Bruno is out, (Garuba) may have to play for us.

Garuba probably won’t find a more challenging mission than his season premiere.

“You have to stay ready all the time, ready for anything,” Garuba said. “It’s a long season. Everything can happen. I was ready for this. I think I’m doing better than last year, improving some things, helping my teammates. That’s my main job, opening up my teammates through my dirty work. I feel like I can help a lot.

Even though the Rockets kids were outmatched, it was worth noting that 10 seasons ago, when Smith was in fourth grade, Antetokounmpo was a teenage rookie who was skinnier then than Smith or Green are now. This too provided a useful lesson.

“I just go harder in the weight room, knowing that one day my body can look like his,” Smith said. “Just keep working in the weight room, keep getting stronger because you see what an advantage that is.

“To face him and really compete with him and really see how it is, that was fun.”

Sengun never doubted his ability in any match. To his credit, he didn’t show the slightest hint of dissatisfaction with his unexpected role. But with Sengun coming off the bench, he could spend a bit more time with his back to the basket and the ball in his hands against other players besides Lopez, a redwood of a cross in the lane.

A coach’s job is to put their players in positions that allow them to do what they do best. This is the quality that coaches often respect in their peers. This is the attribute, among others, that placed Rudy Tomjanovich in the Hall of Fame and that he admired the most (as well as teams that stick to their style and strengths when under pressure ) at the others.

For most of his two seasons, Silas had few options, little chance to be creative or even find ways to bend the norm.

He didn’t just do that with his decision to start the season with Sengun as a reserve; he did so when he probably knew there would be a backlash from the public and with an early schedule that wouldn’t offer much of a chance to win to serve as a cue.

It was treated as something he did to Sengun when it could more accurately be seen as something he did for him.

There’s a long list of stars, even Hall of Famers, who came off the bench to start their careers, from Sam Jones to Kevin McHale and this year’s inductee Manu Ginobili. Although under totally different circumstances, the Clippers started the season with Kawhi Leonard and John Wall coming off their bench. It was not treated as an insult.

The former stars might not have played behind someone who started the season on a training camp contract. But Fernando excelled in both of his starts, moving the ball, defending and finishing well in Atlanta and putting up loads of screens and keeping his big body on Adams against Memphis. (The Grizzlies, the league’s leading offensive rebounding team, had no second-chance points in the 12:46 Fernando was in the game, 17 the rest of the way).

The Rockets also won Sengun’s 27 minutes, outscoring the Grizzlies by 13 points when he was on the floor, largely because he shot 9 of 13 and grabbed 12 rebounds, scoring 23 points.

The central rotation worked. And then it was no longer an option.

Against the Jazz in the next two games, Sengun could well face starters Kelly Olynyk or Jarred Vanderbilt. Even though Fernando wasn’t injured, Silas said there was a chance the roster would change depending on the clashes.

His not-so-surprising surprise turn with the starting lineup lasted two games.

It won’t be the last time he turns things around. On Saturday, with Antetokounmpo and the Bucks dominating, that seemed like the least of the Rockets’ problems.

About Marc Womack

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