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The Houston Rockets 2015 Season In Review: Year Of The Beard

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What a long, strange trip it's been.

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What a season. No, it's not over yet, and no one should be satisfied with merely making it to the first round of the playoffs. But the goals are for a different article. Let's take a look back at the 2014-15 Rockets, who put together a season that no one saw coming.

The Rockets finished with a record of 56-26, good enough to win the Southwest Division. The last time they won at least 56 games was in the 1996-97 season, when they had a few guys named Mario, Clyde, Charles and Hakeem on the side. And the last time they won their division was in 1993-94. The Rockets weren't just good this season; they were better than they've been since the glory days.

The Rockets were predicted by absolutely nobody to win what wound up being the toughest division in the NBA, if not all of American sports, this year. After an offseason that saw them let Jeremy Lin walk, lose Chandler Parsons to Night Clubbin' Mark Cuban and strike out on the Chris Bosh sweepstakes, everyone and their mother saw the Rockets taking a step back from their 4-seed finish last year. After all, they lost a lot of offense, and only replaced it with Trevor Ariza. How could they possibly have improved?

Well, they started 6-0 while shooting the lights out of the building, which put the league on notice. At the time, I wondered if we had been wrong about their potential. Their shooting came back down to earth, but two things turned out to hold true from that hot start: the improved defense, and the all-around improvement of James Harden. Those turned out to be two of the three dominant themes of the Rockets' season, but we'll touch on the third theme first.

Injuries

If all you knew about the Rockets this season was what you had just read, you'd assume that part of them outperforming expectations must have been staying healthy. Well, you wouldn't have been more wrong, hypothetical person.

Dwight Howard, whose improved health everyone thought was A) a given and B) crucial to the Rockets' success missed 41 games due to injury, exactly half the season.

Terrence Jones played the first four games, and then he couldn't feel his leg for a while. His scary, career-threatening nerve injury reduced him to 33 games played.

Patrick Beverley missed most of November with a hamstring injury, then had his season cut short in late March with a torn wrist ligament. He says that if the Rockets can hang on in the playoffs and advance, he'll work his ass off to make it back by late May. We will never doubt Pat regarding his toughness, but his effectiveness will be another story.

Donatas Motiejunas, Houston's frontcourt rock for most of the season with Jones and Howard hurt, went down with a back injury seemingly as soon as those two came back. He's out for the playoffs.

Kostas Papanikolaou, who started the season as the most unexpected and exciting contributor off the bench, fell out of the rotation and then seriously sprained his ankle. He's played a total of 11 minutes since the All-Star break, and he'll be a non-factor in the playoffs.

Does that look like the injury report of a 2-seed? No, no it does not. The Rockets won a lot of games they had no business winning with a patchwork front line and two point guards over 37 years old.

Defense

According to NBA.com, the Rockets had the sixth-best Defensive Rating over the course of the season in the NBA, fourth-best in the Western Conference. They accomplished this with their defensive anchor missing half the season, and their honey badger point guard missing a third. Luckily, they acquired Trevor Ariza before the season and Josh Smith midseason. They gave back some offense from last year, but you know how it goes -- Defense Wins Championships.

Ariza has been the Rockets' defensive stopper on the perimeter, tasked with guarding the opponent's best player night after night. Sometimes he gave up big games, because that's what happens when you guard LeBron, Durant or Klay Thompson, but he played pristine team defense, fought over picks, and made those stars work. His outside shot came and went this season, but every single Rockets fan will tell you he was essential to the Rockets' success this year. He played 82 games this year, by the way, averaging more minutes than any Rocket but Harden.

And where would we be without Josh Smith? We should all be sending Stan Van Gundy gift baskets for allowing Daryl Morey to pick him up on the cheap. Smoove has been the defensive anchor off the bench, serving as a capable rim protector who also starts fast breaks. He allowed the Rockets to go small when they had no other choice without getting run out of the gym.

And of course, our biggest defensive liability last year turned into an asset, stopping many fast breaks and playing with increased physicality in the half court. He also tied with Chris Paul, Monta Ellis and Ariza for 5th in the NBA in steals per game. He also happened to turn into the MVP of the league (in truth, if not in hardware).

James Effing Harden

27 points, 7 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. 16.4 Win Shares, first in the league. 2981 minutes played, most in the league. 715 free throws made, most in the league by 169(!). 2217 total points, most in the league by 317. There were exactly two people in the NBA who could reasonably be considered the best offensive players alive this year, and the other one was Stephen Curry.

If the Warriors weren't a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, James Harden would have wrapped the MVP up in February. No player was asked to do more; no player gave more. Harden didn't just carry the load of a point guard and a primary scorer all at once, he did it while throwing himself at the basket over and over, every game.

The physical toll James Harden took on his body this year was surpassed only by Russell Westbrook. Harden isn't an electrifying freak of nature, he's just strong and determined. And he drove at every team's biggest player, and let that player hit him while he got up his shot, and made it more than he should. He did this because we needed him to, because no other Rocket could.

He did all that, AND he improved his defensive effort by leaps and bounds. He did all that, and assisted on more baskets than all but eight point guards and LeBron James, and more three pointers than anybody. He did all that while people called his style of play ugly for drawing fouls, and called him and the Rockets villains for playing an efficient brand of basketball.

Is this the work of an ugly villain?

No. No it is not.

The Rockets had a great season, but one man defined it. James Harden dragged this injured team all the way to where they are, and if the Rockets are going anywhere in the postseason, he'll have to drag them there too.