The Rockets-Jazz rivalry or Jazz-Rockets rivalry is a rivalry between the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. The rivalry is one of the famous interdivisional rivalries in the NBA. The rivalry began in the 1990s when the Houston Rockets, led by dominant center Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Utah Jazz led by the pick and roll duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton, were playoff powers in the Midwest Division. The teams faced each other four times in the NBA Playoffs during the decade. In all four of those instances, the winner was the eventual Western Conference Champion and finalist in the NBA Finals. In 2007 the rivalry was restored as the two teams met again in the playoffs and a showdown of two of the best 1-2 combos of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming of the Rockets and Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer of the Jazz.
The Dream, Stock, and The Mailman arriveEdit
The major players of both squads, Olajuwon, Malone, and Stockton, were all drafted in the mid 1980s, an era in which many other great players were drafted, mostly in the same years as each other. Hakeem Olajuwon, who led the University of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" squad to three Final Four appearances, was drafted first overall by Houston in 1984. John Stockton, on the other hand, was drafted sixteenth by Utah from Gonzaga in the same year and was relatively unknown at the time. The Jazz pulled off another draft steal when they selected Karl Malone thirteenth overall from Louisiana Tech the next year.
The first meeting in the playoffs between the Rockets and the Jazz was in the 1985 NBA Playoffs. Houston, led by its "Twin Towers" of Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon, amassed a 48-34 record in 1984-1985, earning a second-place finish in the Midwest Division and the third seed in the playoffs. Utah, tied for fourth in the Midwest with San Antonio, wound up as the sixth seed, reaching the postseason for only the second time in franchise history. Utah, with Stockton, Adrian Dantley, and shot-blocking center Mark Eaton (who won the shot-blocking title and set all-time league records for total blocks (456) and blocks per game (5.56)), defeated Houston and its Twin Towers in five games despite losing Eaton to an injured right knee. Nothing was made of this matchup at the time, but it proved to be a foreshadowing of years to come.
1994, Western Conference FinalsEdit
The two teams met in their first major clash with each other in the 1994. Hakeem Olajuwon was widely considered not only the best post player in the league during an era of great centers but, ever since Michael Jordan's first retirement from the NBA, the best player in the league, winning both the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and his second consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award for the 1993-1994 season. Along with Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, and Sam Cassell, the Houston Rockets proved to be a formidable force in the Western Conference, winning the Midwest Division title with a record of 58-24. As the second seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets ousted the Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trail Blazers three games to one, but ran into trouble with Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns, who won the first two games at Houston. The Rockets persisted to eventually win the series, four games to three.
The Utah Jazz, with their established duo of Karl Malone (who finished fifth in the league with 25.2 points per game and topped 19,000 career points to move into 25th place on the all-time list) and John Stockton (who led the league in assists for the seventh straight season with 12.6 assists per game) and the pick and roll offense, also had Jeff Hornacek (acquired in a trade with Philadelphia for Jeff Malone), veteran forward Tom Chambers, and center Felton Spencer to complement the two leaders. The team posed a challenge to the Rockets for the Midwest Division title when it won ten straight games from late February to early March and then eight of nine games to finish the season at a record of 53-29. Utah defeated San Antonio in three games to one, but received a scare from the Denver Nuggets (the eighth seed that upset first-seeded Seattle in the first round) when a 3-0 series lead for the Jazz evaporated into a 3-3 series tie. The Jazz advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three years to face Houston.
The Rockets swept the first two games at Houston, then the teams split the two games at the Delta Center at Salt Lake City with the Jazz winning the first of the two. The fifth game was held in Houston on May 31, 1994. The Rockets hit eight three-pointers in the first three quarters to build a 24-point lead, but the Utah Jazz mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to eight. Robert Horry and Hakeem Olajuwon made clutch shots down the stretch to win it for the Rockets, 94-83, claiming the Western Conference title and sending the Rockets to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1986. The Rockets continued on to win the championship against Olajuwon's old college rival, Patrick Ewing, and the New York Knicks in a grueling seven-game series.
1995 NBA Playoffs, First RoundEdit
The next year, the two rivals faced off again, this time in the first round of the 1995 NBA Playoffs. Houston struggled throughout much of the 1994-1995 season, finishing with a record of 47-35 for the sixth seed in the West. On February 14, 1995, the Rockets unexpectedly traded forward Otis Thorpe to the Portland Trail Blazers for guard Clyde Drexler and forward Tracy Murray. An injury to Carl Herrera forced him to miss most of the second half of the season and the entire postseason and left the power forward position vulnerable. The addition of Drexler into the starting lineup made former starting shooting guard Vernon Maxwell frustrated enough to take a leave of absence. These issues provided fuel for critics of the Thorpe-Drexler deal.
The Jazz, on the other hand, ended the season on a high note with a record of 60-22, then a franchise record thanks partly to a 15-game winning streak on the road in December and January, the second-longest such streak in NBA history. The starting five of Malone, Stockton, Hornacek, David Benoit (basketball), and Felton Spencer, was solid, and the bench possessed key contributors in Adam Keefe, Antoine Carr, James Donaldson, Tom Chambers, and Blue Edwards. The major setback came on January 13, when Spencer suffered a torn left Achilles tendon, which took him out for the rest of the season and the entire postseason. Spencer was not an all-star, but he was still crucial to the Jazz's championship chances because he was a big body who could hold his own against the great centers in the Western Conference, especially against Hakeem Olajuwon. With the second best record in the Midwest Division to the San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz ended up with the third seed in the West.
The Jazz barely won the first game in the Delta Center 102-100, but the Rockets stunned the Jazz in Game 2 140-126 for a split in Utah. The series moved on to Houston, where the Jazz prevailed 95-82, going up in the series 2-1 over Houston. The Rockets regrouped to win Game 4 123-106 to force a Game 5 at the Delta Center. In game 4, Clyde Drexler scored 41 points while Hakeem Olajuwon scored 40. Game 5 was a tightly fought contest, the Houston Rockets emerged victorious over the Utah Jazz 95-91, eliminating the Jazz for the second straight year. The Rockets went on to repeat as champions, becoming the lowest-seeded team to win the championship.
1997 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference FinalsEdit
The two clubs met again in the 1997 NBA Playoffs, this time in the Western Conference Finals. For the first time in franchise history, Utah finished as the top Western Conference team with a 64-18 record (the best in franchise history) and stormed past both the Clippers and Lakers before meeting Houston.
An off-season trade with Phoenix gave the Rockets Charles Barkley for Sam Cassell, Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant, and Robert Horry. Matt Maloney manned the point as the only first-year player to start in all 82 games. Other key acquisitions included veterans Kevin Willis, Sedale Threatt and Eddie Johnson (basketball) to provide an already potent Rockets starting lineup a deep bench. The Rockets finished second in both the Midwest Division and the Western Conference with a 57-25 record and the third seed. The Rockets swept the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round and then survived a seven-game series with the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Cenference Semifinals, avenging last year's sweep. The Rockets advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where the Utah Jazz was waiting.
Utah won the first two games at home in the Delta Center, while the Rockets responded at home with wins in games 3 and 4, thanks to the heroics of Eddie Johnson, who scored 31 points off the bench in Game 3 and hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2. The Jazz won Game 5 at home, setting the stage for Game 6. John Stockton scored 15 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter to help the Jazz claw back from a 12-point deficit, including his most heroic effort at the final buzzer. After tying the game in the final minute, with time for one final offensive play, Bryon Russell made the inbounds pass to Stockton, Karl Malone set the pick, illegally grabbing Clyde Drexler and pulling him away from Stockton. This forced Malone's man, Charles Barkley, to try to guard Stockton. But Barkley was too late: though he managed to get a hand in Stockton's face, Stockton buried the three-point basket. This spectacular winning play was performed off of the Utah Jazz's signature play: the pick and roll. Stockton's game-winning three-pointer gave the Jazz a 103-100 victory over the Houston Rockets and sent them on their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, where they bowed out to the Chicago Bulls in six games.
1998 NBA Playoffs, First RoundEdit
The latest significant meeting between these two teams was in the first round of the 1998 NBA Playoffs. The Jazz finished tied with the best record with Chicago at 62-20, having swept the regular-season series against the Bulls, guaranteeing home court advantage throughout the entire playoffs. However, the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets, who finished with a record of 41-41 due to numerous injuries, nearly gave the Jazz a scare when the Rockets, led by Drexler's 22 points, won the first game in the Delta Center 103-90. After the Jazz won Game 2 105-90, the Rockets won a grinding Game 3 89-85, led by a team-high 28 points and 12 rebounds from Olajuwon. The Utah Jazz were now one loss away from becoming only the second first-seeded team to lose to an eighth seed. The Rockets looked poised to win the fourth game, but Charles Barkley received an elbow to his forearm, tearing a triceps muscle and ending his season. The Jazz won the last two games of the series over the shorthanded Rockets, ending the retiring Clyde Drexler's career.
End of an era, but is it the end of the rivalry? Edit
After the retirements of Drexler, Barkley, and Olajuwon, the Rockets did not return to the playoffs until 2004, when a team of Yao Ming, Steve Francis, and Cuttino Mobley faced the Lakers (the team which Karl Malone joined the last off-season to win the elusive title). In that same year, the year after Stockton retired, the Jazz ended its twenty-year streak of postseason appearances. Yet in 2007, everything would change.
The Return of the Rivalry (2007 and 2008)Edit
The rivalry was restored in the 2007. Near the end of the season, the Jazz were holding the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, but skidded and allowed the Rockets to have home court advantage during the playoffs. Pressure was on Rockets star Tracy McGrady with questions regarding if he could take the Rockets to the second round for the first time in his career. The pressure showed in Game 1 as he only scored 1 point in the first half with the Rockets down 9. He came out strong in the second half though as he scored 16 points in the third quarter and finished with 23 as the Rockets took the first game 84-75. Game 2 was a similar story as Houston won 98-90 behind McGrady's 31 points and Yao's 27 despite Carlos Boozer career-high tying 41 points. The series shifted to Salt Lake City and the Jazz finally found their groove as they took Game 3 81-67 despite another impressive performance from Yao and T-Mac. The Jazz then tied the series with a 95-85 victory in Game 4. The series went back to Houston for Game 5. T-Mac had one of the best performances of the series as he tallied 26 points and a career-high 16 assists as they took Game 5 96-92. McGrady was one game shy of winning his first playoff series. He had to wait as the Jazz took Game 6 94-82. The series shifted back to Houston for the crucial Game 7. Up to this point, the home team had won every game of the series. This would not hold up as the Jazz emerged victorious, 103-99. Yao and McGrady each had 29, but it was not enough to overcome Boozer's 35 as the Jazz came back from an 0-2 deficit for the first time in franchise history. The Jazz went on to the Conference Finals, but succumbed to the champion Spurs in five games. In 2008, the two teams faced each other again in the first round as the Jazz were the 4-seed and the Rockets were the 5-seed. The Rockets have homecourt advantage against the Jazz but they were playing without Yao Ming who suffered a stress fracture injury just months before the Playoffs. Due to the injury to Yao, the Jazz took advantage as they took the first two games in Houston, The Rockets responded in Game 3 where in the final seconds Carl Landry blocked Deron Williams' shot that could have won the game for the Jazz. After the Game 3 loss, the Jazz responded in Game 4 and took a 3-1 lead. In Game 5 the Rockets outplayed the Jazz, but in Game 6, despite a 41 point performance by Tracy McGrady, the Rockets couldn't respond as the McGrady wasn't getting help from his teammates, and the Jazz had a balanced attack. The Jazz won the series 4-2 and would go to the second round where they were knocked out in 6 games against the Los Angeles Lakers.