We’ve been waiting several days now to find out the next playoff opponent for the Houston Rockets, and finally, we don’t have to be patient any longer. Houston will take on the hated Utah Jazz after their 96-91 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night gave the Jazz a 4-2 series victory.
The Rockets and Jazz have an extended playoff history and rivalry that began during the title runs of the mid 1990s. The Rockets defeated the John Stockton - Karl Malone - Jeff Hornacek versions of the Jazz (my most hated team of all-time in any sport) in each of their title runs, downing Utah 4-1 in the Conference Finals in 1994 and using a Clyde Drexler-led comeback to upset them 3-2 (the opening series was still just 5 games then) in the first round of of the 1995 playoffs.
The Jazz would then infamously return the favor in the 1997 Western Conference Finals, defeating the Houston big three of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and Drexler 4-2 behind a last-second three-pointer from John Stockton. In fact, that was the shot that essentially killed the Houston championship aspirations for two decades. It was a franchise-changing loss.
The aging Rockets would sneak back into the postseason the next year as an eight seed, but they couldn’t get past the top-seeded Jazz in the first round, despite showing a good account of themselves in a 3-2 series defeat.
The teams would meet again in back-to-back postseasons nine years later, with the Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady version of the Rockets going up both 2-0 and 3-2 in the 2007 first round to a Jazz team led by Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, and Derek Fisher, only to eventually fall in 7 games with a four-point loss in the series finale.
They’d meet again the following season in an exact-same Utah four-seed versus Houston five-seed matchup, only this time, the Rockets were without Yao Ming, who was out with an injury. The Rockets would fall in 6 games, capping off an 11-year drought in which Houston was unable to make it past the first-round of the playoffs.
They’d finally break through the following year in defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, only to fall to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in round 2 after another Yao injury, but the Jazz played a major roll in the Houston decade-long failure to make it into the second round.
Now the storied rivalry is back again, this time 10 years after the last postseason meeting (apparently, these teams are meant to clash every decade). And while the names and the faces have all changed, and I don’t quite hate the Jazz as much as I did back in the Stockton-Malone-Hornacek days, they’re still one of Rockets’ biggest and most despised playoff rivals in team history. And after what’s sure to be a hotly contested semifinal series, I’m sure it won’t take long for me to grow to despise this iteration of the Jazz as well.
Buckle up, Houston. The Rockets-Jazz rivalry is back, and I’m sure we’ll be ready to throw tomatoes at Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio in no time.
Game 1 is this Sunday at the Toyota Center at 2:30 CST, airing on national TV on ABC.