Rockets look for new coach after another early playoff exit

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Houston Rockets' P.J. Tucker, left, and Russell Westbrook sit on the bench in the closing minutes of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

HOUSTON – James Harden and the Houston Rockets believed the addition of Russell Westbrook and their unorthodox small lineup would be what they needed to win their first title in 25 years.

Instead, they suffered another early playoff exit and must find a coach after Mike D’Antoni told them he wouldn’t return after he and management couldn’t agree on a new contract.

The Rockets beat Oklahoma City in seven games in the first round and won Game 1 against the Lakers before losing the next four games to be eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals for the second straight year.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” Harden said. “Especially with the amount of work individually that I put in. But I’m going to keep chipping away, I’m going to keep going and going until I can’t go anymore.”

Harden had another splendid regular season, averaging 34.3 points to lead the league in scoring for the third straight year. He was also first in the NBA in 3-pointers (299) and free throws (692) and ranked fifth in steals (1.84) and seventh in assists (7.5).

He continued that elite play in the postseason where he averaged 29.6 points a game. But the Rockets struggled to find other players to step up and help him carry to load. Westbrook missed the first four games of the Thunder series with a quadriceps strain. He returned for Game 5 of the opening round and played every game after that, but never looked quite right.

He was widely panned for his terrible performance in Game 2 against Los Angeles when he made just 4 of 15 shots and finished with 10 points and seven turnovers in Houston’s 117-109 loss.

Westbrook said after Game 5 that he was never 100% after his injury. He also said he felt behind after arriving in the NBA bubble late following a coronavirus diagnosis that kept him from working out for three weeks.