HOUSTON (AP) -If Jeff Van Gundy had decided sooner that he wanted to return to the Houston Rockets, he would still have a job. At least that's what the team was saying Friday after firing him.
The Rockets' Game 7 loss to Utah meant a first-round exit for the third time in Van Gundy's four seasons, raising the possibility that the coach would step down or be dismissed by owner Les Alexander.
The 45-year-old Van Gundy had one season left on a nonguaranteed contract. When the season ended, Van Gundy said he needed time to ponder his future and while he did, the Rockets contacted at least one possible replacement.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said Van Gundy gave the team his blessing to seek other candidates, in case he decided not to coach anymore. But Van Gundy said he told the Rockets all along that he wanted to come back as coach.
``You're always disappointed when you're fired. It's difficult,'' Van Gundy said. ``But I was a little bit more upset when it was being spun that I hadn't come to a decision about wanting to coach. I had told them long ago that I wanted to coach if they wanted me.
``And, obviously, they felt that they were better served going a different direction, which is well within their right,'' he said. ``I both accept that and yet at the same time, respectfully disagree with that decision.''
By the middle of this week, all the Rockets were ready to offer Van Gundy was a senior consulting position. On Friday morning, Van Gundy turned it down and the team let him go.
``Early this week, it really hadn't come to a head until Jeff came to us and said he wanted to coach,'' Morey said. ``At that point, we were positive about alternative candidates.''
The Rockets have reportedly contacted Rick Adelman, the former coach of Portland, Golden State and Sacramento.
The 35-year-old Morey, who's been on the job less than two weeks, wouldn't specify if one of the ``alternative candidates'' was Adelman. He did say the Rockets had a ``very short list'' of replacements in mind.
``The details of who we're interviewing and when,'' Morey said. ``we're leaving to the resolution.''
The Rockets went 182-146 under Van Gundy, including 52-30 this season. But Houston went 7-12 in three postseason appearances and more was expected from teams anchored by All-Stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
Van Gundy may be headed back to one of his old jobs. He was working as a guest analyst for ESPN on Friday night's playoff game between Phoenix and San Antonio.
``I was going to do this regardless of my situation for a few games,'' Van Gundy said. ``As far as long term, I hadn't really thought about it until last night, when I sort of knew that I was going to be fired. So I haven't really had a chance to think about it too much.''
Van Gundy wasn't ready to say he would coach again.
``I don't think you're ever ready for a day when you're let go, but over time I'll be able to think about it and make a good decision,'' he said.
Van Gundy was working in television when the Rockets hired him before the 2003-04 season. Before that, Van Gundy coached the New York Knicks for seven seasons, leading them to the NBA finals in 1999.
Van Gundy's career coaching record is 430-318, 44-44 in the postseason.
Morey said that even if the Rockets would have reached the Western Conference finals, Van Gundy's situation would have unfolded the same way.
``The process would've played out similarly, if he would've had the same uncertainty after the year,'' Morey said. ``That's not meant as a knock on Jeff. We felt like we had to protect the Rockets' interests first.''
Morey said the Rockets tried to open contract negotiations with Van Gundy around the All-Star break, but Van Gundy said he wanted to wait until the end of the season.
Associated Press writer Elizabeth White in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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