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No. 3: Houston Rockets
Last Season: 56-26
T-2nd place in West; Lost 4-1 to Golden State in Western Conference finals
Despite limping through a regular season that saw them join the Milwaukee Bucks as one of two playoff teams to lose more than 150 games to injury, the Houston Rockets took advantage of fortuitous seeding and a series of improbable comebacks to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since Rudy Tomjanovich walked the sidelines and Hakeem Olajuwon patrolled the middle.
Now, Houston is healthy and deeper than ever with the addition of point guard Ty Lawson this summer. Can adding Lawson to a core of MVP runner-up James Harden and Dwight Howard push the Rockets into the ranks of true title contenders? That's what they hope.
Injuries struck Houston almost from the beginning of the season. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley missed nearly all of November with hamstring injuries, and he was quickly joined on the sidelines by starting power forward Terrence Jones (who missed 41 games with a peroneal nerve contusion) and star center Howard, who missed 37 games due to a pair of knee injuries.
While Harden's individual brilliance kept the Rockets afloat, general manager Daryl Morey worked to reinforce the roster. In December, Houston dealt for forward Corey Brewer from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Later that month, the Rockets scored a coup when forward Josh Smith chose them over several other suitors after being waived by the Detroit Pistons. Brewer and Smith became key members of a faster-paced second unit that helped Houston survive with Harden on the bench.
By the spring, Howard and Jones returned, but the Rockets lost Beverley (wrist) and big man Donatas Motiejunas (back) to season-ending surgeries. Still, Houston claimed the second seed in the West by virtue of the San Antonio Spurs' loss on the final night of the regular season, and defeated an imploding Dallas Mavericks team 4-1 in the opening round to advance for the first time since 2009.
When the L.A. Clippers took a commanding 3-1 lead in their conference semifinal matchup, it appeared that was as far as the Rockets would go. But they rallied to extend the series, coming back from a 19-point deficit of the second half of Game Six in L.A. and winning the deciding game at home to set up a conference finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors. Houston was competitive at times before succumbing to the Warriors in five games.