Rockets look for new coach after another early playoff exit

HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden and the Houston Rockets believed the addition of Russell Westbrook and their unorthodox small line-up 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 would not return after he and management could not 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 semi-finals 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 three-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 four 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 per cent 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.

Houston Rockets’ P J Tucker and Russell Westbrook during the second half of an NBA conference semi-final playoff basketball game in Lake Buena Vista. PHOTO: AP

“It’s just very frustrating honestly for me, man, and knowing that the postseason is where you’re supposed to elevate your game and I was just trying to catch rhythm and there’s no time for that,” he said.

Despite Westbrook’s playoff woes, Harden said he was pleased with how his friend’s first season in Houston went and is looking forward to seeing what they can do in the future. But he believes they cannot do it alone and that the team needs to make a move this offseason to get to the next level.

“I feel like we’re a piece away and we’ve just got to keep trying to figure it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ to get to where we need to go,” Harden said.

The Rockets went all in on their small lineup when they traded center Clint Capela to Atlanta in February.

They believed that lineup was more conducive to success in D’Antoni’s fast-paced offence that relies on a high number of three-point attempts. Houston led the league this season by averaging 45.3 attempts per game in D’Antoni’s fourth season.

Now that D’Antoni is gone, it’s unclear if the Rockets will stick with their small line-up or if they will revert to a more traditional starting five with a true centre.

While some questioned whether Houston’s unconventional line-up contributed to its playoff ouster, Harden thinks they would have been fine using that configuration had they executed better.

“We never really gave ourselves a chance,” he said. “And that’s talking about rebounding, that’s talking about our switches, that’s talking about offensively our movement, things that we’re trying to attack on the offensive end that we never really got to consistently. So that’s on us.”

Along with Westbrook’s struggles, the Rockets were also slowed against the Lakers because of the absence of Danuel House. An important player off the bench, House was averaging 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in the playoffs but missed the team’s last three games after violating the NBA’s health protocols by allowing an unauthorised guest in his hotel room “over multiple hours”.

Harden called House’s actions disappointing and said it hurt the team against the Lakers.

“It affected us because obviously just the distraction and he was a huge part of our rotation,” Harden said.

But the Rockets cannot worry about what might have been, and Harden is already looking ahead.

The 31-year-old is focussed on trying to lead the Rockets to their first championship since they won back-to-back titles in 1994-95.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” he said before a long pause, “headed in the right direction.” The question for Harden and the Rockets is how long until they actually get to their destination instead of just going the right way?