April 29, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Rockets' season got off to a disappointing start.

So it was fitting that it ended in similar fashion.

The Rockets narrowly avoided missing the playoffs and barely put up a fight before their first-round elimination by Golden State in Game 5 wrapped up a tough season. Now they face many offseason questions, the biggest being who will coach this team and whether Dwight Howard will opt out of the last year of his contract and become a free agent.

''We're going to get the coach search right,'' general manager Daryl Morey said. ''We're going to get someone in here who is going to help turn this thing around.''

Morey said he would like to keep Howard, but that they'll have to wait to see what he decides. Howard wouldn't discuss his future with the team, but did talk about the struggles of the season.

''It didn't go the way we wanted it to go,'' Howard said. ''We had a lot of ups and downs. I'm pretty sure all of us are going to take some time to reflect on what we can do to better ourselves.''

The Rockets reached the postseason for the fourth straight year, but certainly didn't have the season they expected after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997 last season. They returned most of the pieces from that team that won 56 games, but weren't able to build on last year's success.

Star James Harden set career marks in points (29), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1), but his improvement didn't lead to more success for Houston.

''The season, from the beginning, wasn't going our way,'' Harden said. ''Just had too many distractions. It's just been like a bumpy road this entire season.''

The Rockets traded for Ty Lawson in an effort to take some pressure off Harden, but he was a bust and was released in March.

''We don't pick high,'' Morey said of the draft. ''Most of these teams are built by picking high. Because we don't pick high we have to take bets on our roster. We have to take bets on players that maybe some teams don't see are going to turn out ... we have to take those gambles.''

Expectations were high after last season's success, but it didn't take long for cracks to appear. Coach Kevin McHale was fired after the team won just four of its first 11 games. He was replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff, but it didn't lead to more consistent play and the Rockets were never able to keep pace with the elite teams in the West.

Morey said Bickerstaff did a ''solid job'' in a tough situation and will be considered for the job as the Rockets begin the search immediately.

Late in the season it looked like they'd miss the playoffs, but Utah dropped two of its next three games and the Rockets got back on track to win their last three and lock up the last postseason spot with a 41-41 record.

Bickerstaff believes the biggest problem with his team was a lack of consistency.

''You don't become a very good team or a great team if you don't do it every single night and every single day,'' he said. ''Riding the roller coaster that we rode this year is not how you find consistency. There were too many ups and downs. So you end up a .500 ballclub because we let opportunities go.''

Their prize for eking into the playoffs was a date with Golden State, which won an NBA-record 73 games in the regular season led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry. The Warriors easily won the opener with Curry on the floor, but he sprained his right ankle in that game, giving Houston an opening to pounce while Golden State was at less than full strength.

Instead they lost Game 2 by nine points before a one-point win in Game 3. Curry returned in Game 4 and they hoped to build on the momentum of their win in the third game. Things looked good early as Howard dominated inside and they were tied at halftime.

But Curry was hurt again just before halftime and the Warriors set an NBA playoff record with 21 3-pointers and used a 41-point third quarter to pull away for another lopsided win.

Veteran Jason Terry, in what seemed to be a misguided attempt to boost the team, guaranteed a Houston win in Game 5. It was clear early on that that wouldn't happen as the Warriors led by 17 after the first quarter and cruised to another easy victory to eliminate the Rockets.

''Game 4, the third quarter just really took the life out of us,'' Harden said. ''From the start of (Game 5) it was just they were confident, they made shots and we couldn't get a rhythm. That's the game right there.''

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