The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers rivalry began in the 1980s during the Lakers' "Showtime" era. The two teams have met seven times in the postseason. In the 1980s the Rockets or the Lakers represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Since 1980 the Lakers have won 8 NBA championships appearing in 14 NBA Finals, while the Rockets have won 2 NBA championships appearing in 4 NBA Finals.
The two met in the first round of the 1981 NBA Playoffs (best 2 out of 3), where the Lakers came in as the defending NBA champions led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to face the Rockets, led by Hall of Famer Moses Malone, who strugggled to reach the postseason with a 40-42 record. The Rockets won Game 1 111-107, but the Lakers won Game 2 111-106. The Rockets won the decisive Game 3 in L.A. 89-86 in one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. The Rockets went on an improbable run to the NBA Finals before losing to Boston. The Rockets remain the only team under .500 to appear in the NBA Finals.
The two met again in the 1986 Western Conference Finals where the Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, were again the defending NBA champions and faced the Houston Rockets led by the "Twin Towers" of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Unlike 1981, the Rockets were a formidable foe winning 51 games and the Midwest Division title. After the Lakers won Game 1 the Rockets won four straight games, eliminating the Lakers in Game 5. Game 5 was one of the most memorable games in playoff history. With the game tied at 112, Ralph Sampson made a 12-foot jumper at the buzzer to give the Rockets their second trip to the NBA Finals. The Rockets went on to lose to Boston in six games.
The two met again, this time in 1990 in the first round. The Lakers were playing their first postseason in the "Showtime" era without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with rookie Vlade Divac taking his place. The Lakers won the first two games in Los Angeles before the Rockets won Game 3, but the Lakers eliminated the Rockets in four games. This was the first time the Lakers defeated the Rockets in the posteason. The Lakers however were shocked in the West Semifinals losing to the Phoenix Suns in five games.
The Rockets and Lakers met again in 1991 in the first round. This time the Lakers were led by new coach Mike Dunleavy, a former Rocket. The Lakers won 58 games in the regular season but for the first time since 1980 did not finsh with the best record in the west. The Rockets, despite having Hakeem Olajuwon miss 26 games, finished with an impressive 52 wins. Rockets coach Don Chaney was named the NBA coach of the year. The Lakers swept the Rockets 3-0 in the series. The Lakers went on to the NBA Finals but lost to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in five games. The 1991 NBA Finals proved to be the last NBA Finals appearance of Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Since winning the 1986 Western Conference championship the Rockets have lost five straight seasons in the first round.
The 1996 first-round meeting between these two teams featured the first time that the Houston Rockets were the defending NBA champions. During the season Magic Johnson made a comeback attempt, playing in his first NBA regular season game since 1991. The Lakers were primarily led by Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Vlade Divac and Cedric Ceballos. The Rockets were led by future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. At the time, this matchup was one of the most hyped first-round matchups in NBA history. The Rockets and Lakers split the first two games in Los Angeles. However, the Rockets won the next two games in Houston and won the series 3-1. The Rockets went on to be swept in the Western Conference Seminfinals by Seattle. This series marked the last time Magic Johnson played an NBA game.
The 1999 first-round matchup featured a star-studded lineup for both teams. The Lakers were led by the trio of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Glen Rice. The Rockets were led by a future Hall of Fame frontcourt led by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and Scottie Pippen. The 1999 matchup featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal meeting for the first time since the 1995 NBA Finals. The Lakers won the first two games at home, but led by Charles Barkley's triple double the Rockets took game 3. The Lakers won game 4 and eliminated the Rockets. The Lakers went on to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs who went on to win the NBA championship. However, the Lakers hired former Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson and won three straight NBA titles. This matchup was the last postseason series for Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.
Yao and Shaq controversy Edit
Shaquille O'Neal received some media flak for mocking Chinese speech when interviewed about newcomer center Yao Ming, but he was able to downplay the media attention to the event. Yao himself stated he did not find it offensive, but could see how others might misinterpret the remark as a racist comment. ESPN's highest-rated regular season contest was the first matchup between Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming in Houston. The game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets scored a 3.82 cable Nielsen rating. The Rockets would win the game 111-107.
2004 NBA Playoffs Edit
The two teams met again in the 2004 NBA Playoffs with the Lakers the favorite to win the NBA championship. The Lakers added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to go with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Rockets were a young team led by All-stars Yao Ming and Steve Francis, both making their postseason debut. At this time it is the only postseason meeting between Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers won game 1 thanks to a Shaquille O'Neal putback dunk in the final seconds. Jim Jackson missed a 3-pointer that would have won game at the buzzer. The Lakers won game 2 easily, taking a 2-0 lead to Houston. The Rockets won Game 3 led by Steve Francis's first-ever playoff triple-double. It would be the first postseason victory for the Rockets since Game 3 of the 1999 NBA playoffs against the Lakers. The Lakers won game 4 in a 91-87 overtime thriller. Steve Francis hit a jumper with under a minute remaining to send the game into overtime. The Rockets held an 87-83 lead with less than two minutes left. The key play was a Kobe Bryant three-point play to not only give the Lakers the lead but foul out Rockets center Yao Ming. The Lakers blew out the Rockets in Game 5 and won the series 4-1. The Lakers went on to the NBA Finals but were shocked by the Detroit Pistons in five games. The Lakers in the offseason traded away Shaquille O'Neal. The Rockets also traded one of their players from the series, trading Steve Francis for Tracy McGrady in a seven-player deal. At this time the Rockets have not made it past the first round since 1997.
In all seven matchups the Rockets have never had home-court advantage.
These matchups would provide some of the greatest center showdowns in playoff history: Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1981), Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1986), Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal (1999), Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal (2004).
The two teams have only played one decisive game in their playoff history (1981).