HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in 18 years before being eliminated in five games by the Golden State Warriors.
"We fought," star guard James Harden said. "That's all we could do is fight. We put ourselves in a situation where we made it tough against a really good team, to be down 0-3, so we just look back at it and be ready for next year."
Harden had a playoff-record 13 turnovers in Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Still, his stellar work was the main reason the Rockets got as far as they did in a year where Dwight Howard missed half the season with injuries. Harden was the MVP runner-up to Golden State's Stephen Curry after scoring 27.4 points a game to finishing second in the NBA.
"James didn't play well," coach Kevin McHale said about the elimination game. "But as I've said all year long, we don't win the division, we don't win 56 games, we don't have home court, we don't beat the Clippers in Game 7 if it wasn't for James."
Harden carried the team in the regular season when Howard sat out 41 games with injuries and helped the Rockets to a 56-26 record and the second seed in the Western Conference. Their 56 wins were the most since they won 57 games in 1997.
Howard's injury wasn't the only significant one for the Rockets, who were also without starting power forward Terrence Jones for 49 games. More injuries came in March when fellow starters forward Donatas Motiejunas and point guard Patrick Beverley were lost for the season.
"Missing our starting point guard and then (Motiejunas), who's a key piece to our team, as well, put a lot of pressure on other guys to step up, so they did," Harden said. "But it just wasn't enough."
They were still able to win playoff series for the first time since 2009 when they eliminated the Dallas Mavericks in five games in the first round. Things got tougher in the conference semifinals when they found themselves in a 3-1 hole to the Los Angeles Clippers.
After winning Game 5, it looked as if the Rockets season would end in Game 6 in Los Angeles when they were down 19 points in the third quarter. Instead Corey Brewer scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and Josh Smith added 14 to lead the Rockets to an epic comeback to keep their season alive.
They closed out that series in Houston behind a big game by Harden to put them in them in the conference finals for the first time since 1997.
"We've been through a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries this year, a lot of different guys going down, so a lot of different guys had to step up," Harden said. "We made it this far ... this isn't where we wanted it to end at, but it was a really good season for us. Next year we've got to be better, and we will."
A rejuvenated Howard looked more athletic than he had in years in the postseason after spending so much time on the sideline getting healthy during the regular season. He led the NBA in the rebounding in the playoffs with 14 a game and averaged 16.4 points and 2.3 blocks.
Howard was encouraged by Houston's improvement this year after they were eliminated from the playoffs by Portland in the opening round last season in his first year with the Rockets.
"We should be proud of ourselves," Howard said. "We didn't complete the season with the goal we had in mind, but we got close to it after all the things we've been through. We did what we could for our city and our team, and we got (farther than anyone) expected us to. They had written us off from the beginning of the season until now."
The Rockets got a boost from the midseason acquisitions of Brewer and Smith. Brewer came to Houston in December in a trade with Minnesota and was the team's most important spark off the bench.
Smith was widely criticized when he was released by the Pistons in December. But given another chance with the Rockets he didn't disappoint, averaging 12 points and six rebounds a game in the regular season. He was even better in the playoffs, when he averaged 13.5 points a game.
McHale raved about his work and was happy that Smith made the most of his opportunity in Houston after a tough start to the season.