It’s Rivalry Week here at SB Nation, and in the spirit of the season, here’s a quick rundown of some of the rivals of the Houston Rockets over the years. We’ll expand on some of these a little more throughout the week, but this is your comprehensive list of the biggest.
Boston Celtics - 1980s
The Rockets had somewhat of a checkered history in the 1980s, finishing the decade with a losing record (402-418), but also making two NBA Finals appearances. They lost in both 1981 and 1986 to the Celtics in six games. So while Boston wasn’t necessarily a rival in the truest sense of the word, they were the pinnacle of the NBA in that time, the hump the Rockets never could quite overcome. Houston even famously squashed the Showtime Lakers on the road to the Finals in ‘86, but never could quite get past one of the most loaded teams of all time. It’s a theme the Rockets would revisit against another loaded squad three decades later.
Phoenix Suns - 1990s
The Rockets only met the Suns on two different occasions during the postseason, but boy, were they both humdingers of a series. The first came in the 1994 title run, in which the Rockets fell into an early 2-0 hole after blowing back-to-back 20-point leads on their home floor to earn a Choke City moniker. But they bounced back to win the next three games in a row before closing out the Suns in seven to famously flip Choke City into Clutch City.
They’d have another barnburner with the Suns the following season, with the back-and-forth series also going to seven games. This one ended on Mario Elie’s Kiss of Death shot, with Elie famously saying, “I looked at Joe Klein, and he looked like he was gonna cry, so I just blew him the kiss of death.” That sums up Rockets versus Suns nicely.
Seattle Supersonics - 1980s and 1990s
The Supersonics were always Houston’s kryptonite. The Rockets lost to them in the first round of the 1982 playoffs. Moses Malone would then head to Philadelphia, where he would cruise to an NBA title on one of the most dominant squads of all-time. End of an era for Houston.
The Rockets would fall to the Sonics again in 1987, losing in the second round. Ralph Sampson would be traded the following season. End of an era for Houston.
Houston would lose yet again to Seattle in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, as the team sunk into mediocrity until Rudy Tomjanovich took over in the middle of the 1991-1992 season. In his first full year with the Rockets, he led them to a 55-27 record in 1993, but they would fall to the Sonics again, this time in seven games plus OT.
The Rockets would get swept by Seattle in 1996, squashing any hopes of a three-peat, and they acquired Charles Barkley in the offseason, breaking up a back-to-back championship core specifically to combat the Shawn Kemp-led Sonics. And though it worked — Houston finally snuck past their old nemesis in 1997 — they fell the following round to Utah, and that version of the Rockets never seriously contended again. End of an era in Houston.
Utah Jazz - 1990s & 2000s
The Jazz are a quintessential rival. The fan bases hold general animosity towards one another. They’ve both had long stretches of fielding highly competitive and occasionally contending teams, and they reside in the same conference, meaning they’ve had some pretty meaningful playoff battles over the years.
The Rockets lost to the Jazz in the 1985 first round, but the meaningful battles didn’t kick into high gear until a decade later.
The Rockets outworked the Jazz in the 1994 Western Conference Finals, taking down John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Jerry Sloan in five games behind a dominant Hakeem Olajuwon, and they’d beat them again in the first round in 1995, winning back-to-back elimination games to send the 60-win Jazz packing early.
Utah would return the favor in 1997 behind Stockton’s Game 6 heroics, effectively ending the Rockets as contenders in gut-wrenching fashion, and Utah would beat Houston again in the first round the following season.
The two teams would take almost another decade off, meeting again in back-to-back years from 2007-2008. Houston fell in seven and then in six games in the middle of the Yao-McGrady era. Both were devastating defeats.
The Rockets have also played Utah more recently, matching up with them in each of the past two seasons. The Rockets have ran them off the court both times, winning both in five games, but that doesn’t dampen the heartache caused by both sides on each other through the years or the dislike these two teams have historically.
Golden State Warriors - 2010s
Some might say that because the Rockets never beat these guys, it’s not much of a rivalry, but I would respond by saying no one out West played The Dubs any tougher than the Rockets. And though they never were able to get over the hump, Daryl Morey constructed his teams with combating Golden State in mind.
The Rockets lost in five games in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, then fell again in five in the 2016 first round. They famously pushed the Dubs to seven games in 2018, and were a Chris Paul hammy, some better officiating, or some anomalously bad shooting away from winning. Seriously, any one of those things change (not all), and the Rockets likely win. Perfect storm.
The Rockets then fell in six games in 2019, with the Warriors banged up.
Houston never did fully climb the mountain, but these were some seriously high-level contests against one of the greatest teams of all time. The Rockets may have been the second-best team in the West during this time. They just couldn’t get past the best.
These teams also played some memorable regular season contests in which James Harden has had some of his best moments.
Dallas Mavericks - Constant interstate rival
By proximity alone, the Mavs are always Houston’s rival. Mark Cuban is always ready to stick it to the Rockets whenever and however possible (hi, Chandler Parsons!), and it’s another fanbase Red Rowdies share some animosity with. Here at TDS, we almost always have a running Mavericks gag in honor of our cross-state hatred (Luka!), and the teams have a smattering of playoff history to top it off.
The Rockets lost to Dallas in the 1988 first round, and though the teams wouldn’t meet again in the playoffs until 2005, it sure was a doozy. The Rockets were in early stages of the Yao-McGrady era, and overall optimism was still high. It almosts burst at the seams when the Rockets jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but in true 2000s Rockets fashion, they ended up blowing the series 4-3, losing Game 7 by 40 (yes, 40).
The Rockets would down Dallas 4-1 in the 2015 postseason, and though that’s just three total playoff matchups in team history, Dallas is still a rival in the truest sense of the word.
San Antonio Spurs - Constant interstate rival
The Spurs also reside in the great state of Texas, making them another natural rival, and though there might not be the pure hatred involved like with Jazz fans or all the groaning at like with Mavs fans, these two fan bases also can get after each other. There are also three playoff battles between these two franchises, with the Rockets holding a 2-1 lead.
The most significant matchups came in 1995, when Hakeem Olajuwon famously dusted David Robinson, ruining The Admiral’s MVP acceptance and creating an entire mixtape’s worth of highlights in one series in downing San Antonio 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
The second most significant came in the second round of 2017, with the Spurs returning the favor, and Manu Ginobili giving us a freeze-frame block on James Harden that Spurs fans on Twitter will be using as a comeback until the end of time. The Rockets lost by 40, The Beard no-showed in a critical moment, and it’ll be held against him until he wins a championship. Tough moment.
Who do you think is the Rockets’ greatest rival?
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San Antonio Spurs
Golden State Warriors