The Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets rivalry is a storied rivalry. It’s okay if you’re a little confused at the blind spite that this site—and many Jazz fans have—for the Houston Rockets. The rivalry between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets goes as far back as the Utah Jazz’s first playoff series. It goes through decades and all Utah Jazz greats have had a part in building the hostility between these two teams whether it was Mark Eaton and Adrian Dantley in the early 80s, John Stockton and Karl Malone in the 90s, or Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in 2000s. This rivalry is about to begin anew in the 2010s, and it’s important for all Jazz fans to know the history of this rivalry.
1985 1st Round
The Utah Jazz had just begun to have playoff success under Frank Layden. In 1984, the Utah Jazz drafted John Stockton to a team that already had Adrian Dantley and Mark Eaton. That team went to the playoffs as a 6th seed and faced the 3rd seeded Houston Rockets that were led by Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. In that series Mark Eaton was lost to a knee injury. It seemed as though the Utah Jazz would be a quick out for the Houston Rockets. Utah was not. Utah ousted the three seeded Houston Rockets in five games despite being down their defensive hall of famer.
Why is this important? This series is why you don’t see Houston Rockets fans—the savvy ones—celebrating early that the series is theirs with the news of Ricky Rubio’s injury. Houston has been the overwhelming favorite over an injured underdog Utah Jazz team before. They lost.
1994 Western Conference Finals
While many Utah Jazz fans will point to how close the Utah Jazz were in 1997 and 1998 to an NBA Title, the Utah Jazz actually were never closer than when they faced the Houston Rockets in 1994 in the Western Conference Finals. Michael Jordan had retired from the league and the heir apparent to the NBA Title was going to come out of the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz faced off against a team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Cassell, Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, and Robert Horry.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Utah Jazz fell to an early 2-0 deficit to Houston losing both games in Texas. Then the Stockton-Malone Jazz split both games at home. They ended up losing in five. The Houston Rockets would then go on to beat the Patrick Ewing led New York Knicks. That could have been Utah.
1995 1st Round
This one hurts even worse. The Utah Jazz had gone on a tear through the NBA regular season. Michael Jordan was nowhere to be seen. They were 60-22 and facing last year’s Western Conference Finals opponent the Houston Rockets who were having a down year but they had just acquired Hakeem Olajuwon’s old Phi Slamma Jamma teammate, Clyde Drexler, at the trade deadline. Houston had momentum going into the playoffs. The Utah Jazz were STUNNED in the 1st round losing in five games.
The Houston Rockets would go on to win the NBA Title, again. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
1997 Western Conference Finals
This is the iconic series for Utah Jazz fans. Most will recognize John Stockton with his short shorts celebrating the big shot to put the Jazz over the Houston Rockets when he hit the big shot to put the Utah Jazz into the NBA Finals. But to understand the Stockton’s jubilation, Jerry Sloan’s excitement while running onto the court, and Karl Malone going crazy, you have to know the history. The history of Utah falling short over and over again to the Houston Rockets and watching them hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy year when they knew that should have been them. That was made the moment special. Unfortunately, Michael Jordan had returned to the NBA throne. The seat was no longer vacant and the Utah Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls in 6 games.
1998 First Round
The Utah Jazz faced the Houston Rockets a year later in the first round. Once again Utah had over 60 wins as they faced the lower seeded Houston Rockets. Houston once again pushed the Jazz to the brink of an upset by going up two games to one in the first round. This time however, the Utah Jazz battled back beating the Houston Rockets. Clyde Drexler would retire after this year. Charles Barkley would get injured. The Houston Rockets run had come to an end.
The Utah Jazz’s second chance at the Chicago Bulls would end similarly. They would lose in six games again, this time with a push-off that would become the iconic highlight of the NBA for the next 20 years.
2007 1st Round
Another decade, another exciting Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz rivalry. In 2007, the Utah Jazz had stunned the NBA by becoming one of the best teams in the Western Conference led by their young point guard phenom Deron Williams and Cleveland Cavalier Benedict Arnold Carlos Boozer. The Utah Jazz were embracing small ball before it had a name with a stretch 5 named Mehmet Okur. Their small forward was actually one of the league’s proto-small ball fours, Andrei Kirilenko.
This Utah team had marched its way to the NBA playoffs only to face one of the league’s best scorers in Tracy McGrady and the Yao Ming, a dominant defensive center and post nightmare. This seemed to be the absolute worst matchup for the VERY undersized Utah Jazz whose big man corps included 7’0 Mehmet Okur, 6’9 Carlos Boozer, and 6’8 Paul Millsap.
Then the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets held homecourt with each other until game 7 in Houston. Carlos Boozer had a monster game (including series) as Houston tried everything to stop the undersized power forward. Carlos Boozer had 35 points and 14 rebounds. HOLDAT. The Utah Jazz would then go onto beat the Golden State Warriors in the second round and ultimately lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
2008 1st Round
This was the year that the series got spicy. Adding to the intrigue of this series, Tracy McGrady said in an interview with Stephen A Smith if he didn’t make it out of the first round it would be on him. Partly because the Houston Rockets didn’t have Yao Ming, but they did once again have home court advantage. The Utah Jazz won the first two games in Houston, then split at home. The Rockets behind Tracy McGrady going off won in game 5 in Houston, and pushed the Jazz to 6 games. The Utah Jazz ultimately won the series 4-2 despite not having home court.
2018 2nd Round
Which brings us to today. The Utah Jazz are once again heavy underdogs in this new chapter of Rockets-Jazz rivalry. While that may seem like good news to Houston, historically in this rivalry, that’s blown up in the favorite’s face. When Utah was favored, Houston won. When Houston was favored, Utah won. Now Utah goes into Houston without home court, down their starting point guard, and heavily relying on their rookie superstar. That seems like a recipe for disaster. But if you’ve been following this rivalry since the beginning you’ll realize that it’s just the prologue to what should prove to be another exciting chapter in this storied NBA rivalry.