This isn’t the first time I’ve written this piece. I’ve been covering the Houston Rockets in some capacity long enough that I’ve had to revisit this feeling before. The thing is, no matter how many times I write about it nor how many times the cast of players change, I still hate the freaking Utah Jazz.
And I don’t mean just dislike. I mean HATE. As in, they might be my most hated team in all of professional sports. I dislike the Patriots, not a huge fan of the Yankees, or the Celtics, and the Mavs and Spurs will always be a Rockets fans’ natural enemy, but there’s just something about the Jazz that really gets my blood boiling.
The thing is, they actually have some players I theoretically would like as individuals. Donovan Mitchell is a fine young man and an exciting player, even if he does have a little bit of Westbrook in him (both the good and the bad), while Rudy Gobert is exactly the kind of traditional big man I enjoy watching. Put ‘em in those ugly-ass Utah uniforms, though, and I’m ready to throw tomatoes.
Of course, being the Jazz, they’re also chock full of players whose mere presence simply annoy me. Joe Ingles, Grayson Allen, Ricky Rubio... all guys who are destined to do something to have me screaming at my TV and my 2-year-old potentially repeating some unsavory words she heard from daddy to other adults in the neighborhood or even her grandparents.
I’ve been watching the Rockets since the mid-80s, and Houston won its back-to-back titles during my junior and senior year of high school. During that time, there’s been a string of playoff matchups between the two franchises, many of them with bad blood or dramatic finishes.
1994 Western Conference Finals
The history of the Rockets-Jazz postseason really began in 1985 with 3-2 Utah win, but the deep seeds of hate weren’t planted and sowed until almost a full decade later. John Stockton and Karl Malone were one of the most prolific duos in the league (and of all-time), but being that they played for Jerry Sloan, they were also one of the dirtiest. Add in another grimy player who also had a knack for knocking down clutch shots in Jeff Hornacek and another first-class annoyance in Tom Chambers, and you had all the makings of a knockdown-drag out. The Rockets were rolling in this one, however, winning the series in a mere 5 games to advance to NBA Finals and eventually their first title behind Hakeem Olajuwon, and big time shooting from Kenny Smith and Robert Horry. Dream averaged 27.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.6 steals, and 4.6 blocks.
1995 First Round
The rivalry blossomed even further in 1995, when the teams met in the first round. The Rockets came in as the six seed with just a 47-35 record, while the Jazz won 60 games in a ridiculously tough Western Conference field. It was a tight, neck-and-neck series that saw the Rockets go down 2-1 (in the days of the best-of-5 first round), only to rally behind Olajuwon and the newly acquired Clyde Drexler. The duo each had 40 or more in Game 4 and 30-plus in Game 5 to come back from the brink and upset the Jazz.
1997 Western Conference Finals
The Jazz got their revenge two years later, matching up against Houston’s big three of Olajuwon, Drexler, and Charles Barkley in the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz won 64 games that year, while the Rockets won 57 in a match of two titans. The teams battled back and forth until Stockton hit a gut-punch three to close the Rockets off in six. This series also featured one of my favorite moments as a Rockets fan, which was Eddie Johnson’s game-winner in Game 4, which had me believing that Houston was a team of destiny once more, even though that feeling was short-lived.
1998 First Round
The teams met again in the first round the following year, and though the Jazz were an elite squad, the Rockets were in full decline due to age and injury, finishing just 41-41. The Rockets, however, put up a strong fight, going up 2-1 in the five-game series behind the strong play of Hakeem, but a Charles Barkley injury derailed those hopes, and the Rockets lost the last two games to essentially end an era of ball in Houston. Drexler would retire in the offseason, and that version of the Rockets would never again seriously compete. The Jazz essentially threw the last shovels of dirt on the Dream-Clyde era.
2007 First Round
The teams wouldn’t meet in the playoffs again until almost a decade later, and the cast of characters had completely changed. The Rockets finished with 52 wins and had title hopes behind Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, while the Jazz won 51 and had a tough (and annoying) group consisting of Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap, and Derek Fisher. The Rockets came out and won the first two games of the series behind Yao (who scored 28 & 27 respectively) and seemed poised for an easy victory, but the Jazz bounced back behind Boozer, Williams, and Okur and defeated the Rockets in 7 games, even winning the series finale in H-town, the only away win for either team.
2008 First Round
The Rockets and Jazz met again in the first round the following season with one game again separating their regular season record. The Rockets won 55 and were looking for some revenge, while the 54-win Jazz came in ready. Houston was coming in without All-Star center Yao Ming, who was out for the year with an injury, but they had won 22 straight earlier in the year, including 12 of them without Yao, so confidence was high they could get it done. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the Rockets lost in six games. Tracy McGrady famously and sarcastically put the loss all on him after Houston dropped the first two games at home.
2018 Western Conference Semi-Finals
Continuing the trend of meeting every decade or so, the two teams matched up again in 2018, and the Rockets finally got back in the win column versus the Jazz behind James Harden and Chris Paul who combined to average 52 points and 14 assists in the series. Clint Capela held Rudy Gobert to just 12 points per game, and Houston held Donovan Mitchell to only 36 percent from the field. The Rockets lost Game 2 at home, but dominated after that, winning the final three contests by double-digit points to close out the Jazz 4-1.
However, if you include the 1985 series loss, the Rockets trail the Jazz all-time in the postseason 5-3, so we’ll be looking to tighten that up a little more this year. There’s no worse feeling than losing to your most hated team, so the only thing left to say is... go Rockets!