As the Houston Rockets head into the belly of the beast one more time in Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Jazz, they’ll be looking to close out one of my most hated and one of the nastiest fan bases in sports (seriously, who boos a guy who just got literally tackled, like he’s flopping? You can’t really embellish being tackled, guys).
I mean, Utah’s not quite Philadelphia Eagles fans booing Santa Clause or pelting people with batteries, but its perhaps more annoying, because you at least know there are a few genuine badasses at Eagles games. Philly’s a tough city. Salt Lake City is, well... in Utah.
Anyway, with the good guys hoping to break out the brooms and get as much as a week off between round one and the looming Western Conference Semifinal slugfest with the Golden State Warriors, I thought it would be cool to go back and look at some of the other sweeps in Houston Rockets playoffs history and found out how rare they truly are.
In fact, if you include the times the Rockets themselves have been swept by the opposition, there’s only been 7 sweeps experienced one way or the other by this franchise out of 58 total playoff series, or just 12 percent of the time. Crunch that down to the times the Rockets have been on the blunt end of the broom, and we’re down to just 3 sweeps out of 58, or just 5 percent of the time.
The last time Houston swept an opponent was the Minnesota Timberwolves in the opening round of the 1997 playoffs. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley were all still starring for the Rockets, and Kevin Garnett was in just his second season in the league. The NBA was still playing just best-of-five in the first round (a format I’d actually like to see again), so this was just a three-gamer that saw the Rockets win the first two games by double-digit points and then close out the Wolves on the road behind 26 points and 9-11 shooting from good ol’ Matt Maloney.
Go back a step further to the next sweep, and we’re looking at the Hakeem Olajuwon masterclass that won Clutch City’s second straight title with a 4-0 spanking of Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic. Dream famously averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks and was at the absolute apex of his powers. Shaq had a damn good series too, but peak Dream was too much for anybody.
The only other time the Rockets were on the right side of the sweep was back in 1986, when they took three straight from the Sacramento Kings on their way to a run to the Finals that ultimately culminated in a six-game loss to the Boston Celtics. Houston was rocking the Twin Towers at that time, and they, of course, led the way in a series in which the average Houston margin of victory was 14 points.
Ralph Sampson finished with 20.3 points, 11 boards, 3.3 dimes, 2.3 steals, and 2 blocks, while Olajuwon had a near-identical 20 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 3 blocks per game. I know we say this all the time with with these two, but man... what if?
A quick look at the ugly side of Rockets sweeps saw them bow out to their arch-nemesis the Seattle Supersonics in 1996. Houston always had trouble with those guys.
They were bounced in three straight by the Magic Johnson-James Worthy Lakers in the 1991 playoffs. The Rockets had Hakeem, Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, and Otis Thorpe, but the team had yet to really come together chemistry-wise.
They were also swept in back-to-back years when they were part of the Eastern Conference, losing to the Celtics 4-0 in 1980, despite having Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, and Rudy T, and they were also swept in 1979, losing to the Atlanta Hawks in two games during the days of a best-of-three first round.
Anyway, the point of all this is to illustrate how exceedingly rare and difficult a sweep is. The Jazz came out with fire and brimstone in Game 3 and you have to think it’s going to be more of the same tonight, especially in Salt Lake. Jeremy mentioned this on the podcast, and I have to say I agree with him, that I wouldn’t be totally shocked to see a Utah win tonight.
I’m not saying there’s no way that the Rockets win (they could just blow Utah away, always a possibility), I’m just pointing out that sweeps are very hard, and this year’s team had a tendency to lose focus at times, even though they do seem particularly locked in right now. You have to win four to move on, so until that happens, this series isn’t over.
That being said, I’d prefer to never have to look at these Jazz and their fans again, at least until next year. Except, of course, for crazy hair lady. She’s cool.