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. It’s also okay if you’re a young Houston Rockets fan wondering, “Why do Jazz fans beat their chest at the very thought of the 2006-2007 season?”
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 picked up again last year as Donovan Mitchell helped lead the Utah Jazz past the Oklahoma City Thunder last year only to meet the buzzsaw that was Houston. As the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets meet for a NINTH time, it’s important for all Jazz fans to know the history of this rivalry.
1985 1st Round
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Adrian Dantley - 24 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.6 spg
Houston Rockets Player of the series: Ralph Sampson - 21.2 ppg, 16.6 rpg, 1.4 apg
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 shouldn’t see Houston Rockets fans—the savvy ones—celebrating early that this year’s series is theirs as a favorite. The Utah Jazz went into this 1985 NBA Playoffs only winning 41 games and as a heavy underdog. They would shock the Rockets that year behind a big series from Adrian Dantley and Thurl Bailey.
1994 Western Conference Finals
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Karl Malone - 26.0 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 5.2 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Hakeem Olajuwon - 27.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.6 spg, 4.6 bpg
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.
Hakeem Olajuwon DESTROYED the Utah Jazz. They just didn’t have an answer for him. Meanwhile this was the first of many years with Jeff Hornacek. Utah hadn’t quite figured out the secret to their new Big 3 yet. Additionally, Utah was still missing one BIG piece for an NBA Finals run. That piece would come in the form of Greg Ostertag.
1995 1st Round
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Karl Malone - 30.2 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 3.8 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Hakeem Olajuwon - 35.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.6 bpg
This one hurts even worse. The Utah Jazz had gone on a tear through the NBA regular season. They had acquired Antoine Carr at center to make sure they didn’t have a repeat of Hakeem Olajuwon’s playoff heroics. 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. The Jazz had an even tougher time slowing down Hakeem Olajuwon because if they focused too much of their attention on him, Clyde Drexler was ready to light it up. Kenny Smith also had a huge series.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
1997 Western Conference Finals
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: John Stockton - 20.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 10.3 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Hakeem Olajuwon - 27.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.0 spg, 3.3 bpg
REVENGE IS OURS! This is the 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. The pain of Utah getting even loser in 1996 to fall to the Seattle Supersonics. That was made the moment special.
The Utah Jazz had a second year player named Greg Ostertag who made life easier. He only averaged 8 points and 8 rebounds in the series, but his presence down low made life easier for Utah defensively. He had the tall task of protecting the paint against not only Hakeem Olajuwon but Charles Barkley.
The bigger story to this series was John Stockton cast away in this series. Stockton’s M.O. was to defer and pass. As much as it is in today’s lexicon to scream at Joe Ingles to “shoot the ball! YOU’RE OPEN!” this was the common parlance of the day during the Stockton to Malone era when speaking about Stockton. Even if open he would defer. Not in this series. He finally took full advantage of the green light Jerry Sloan gave him.
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
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Karl Malone - 26.6 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 1.6 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Hakeem Olajuwon - 20.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg, 3.2 bpg
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
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Carlos Boozer - 24.6 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.4 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Tracy McGrady - 25.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 7.3 apg
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
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Deron Williams - 20.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 8.5 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Tracy McGrady - 27.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 8.0 apg
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.
This series, Deron Williams elevated himself to the alpha. He destroyed the Rockets and made the difference. Rafer Alston had a ton of trouble containing D-Will. That forced Tracy McGrady to shoulder most of the offensive burden and some defensive burden throughout the series. The Utah Jazz ultimately won the series 4-2 despite not having home court.
2018 2nd Round
Utah Jazz Player of the Series: Donovan Mitchell - 19.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 6.0 apg
Houston Rockets Player of the Series: Chris Paul - 24.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.2 apg, 2.2 spg
The Utah Jazz limped into this matchup with the Rockets. Ricky Rubio had been lost to a hamstring injury a week before the series started. Dante Exum was still struggling coming back from injury and Raul Neto was at a size disadvantage against Houston’s guards. That forced Donovan Mitchell to learn point guard on the fly on the biggest stage. Utah also didn’t have the benefit of preparation as their series against Oklahoma City ended just two days before having to be in Houston.
The Utah Jazz would shock Houston in Game 2 by beating Houston on their home floor. It looked like Donovan Mitchell was ready to ascend to the Mt. Rushmore of NBA greats in only his first NBA Playoffs. Utah came home with the series split 1-1, but Houston adjusted and made life difficult for Mitchell. Utah desperately needed Ricky Rubio to return from injury as Chris Paul was lighting up Utah from midrange.
Rudy Gobert was rendered a non-factor as Utah’s drop big back defense allowed Chris Paul to feast from 14-18ft. The Jazz would lose three straight and lose the series 4-1. Ricky Rubio tried to return as fast as he could—rehabbing as much as 10 hours a day—but it just wasn’t in the stars. The nail in the coffin came as Donovan Mitchell left game 5 with an injury. Prior to the injury Utah was leading in the game through his heroics.
That series featured a lot of what-could’ve-been’s.
2019 NBA Playoffs
Every what-could’ve-been from last year is a non-factor this year as the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets run it back for a second straight year. Ricky Rubio is healthy, Donovan Mitchell is a year older and wiser, the Utah Jazz have reconfigured their defense to be ready for Chris Paul’s midrange sniping, and the Jazz enter the series having four days to prepare for the Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets are missing some big pieces that were key to guarding Donovan Mitchell last year, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah-a-Moute. Houston Rockets fans seem to be downplaying their impact on last year’s playoff series, but those two were a big factor as to why Donovan Mitchell struggled. They’ve replaced them with Danuel House and Austin Rivers. Donovan Mitchell will take that matchup.
Ricky Rubio has been resting for the past two weeks to get back to full speed. Derrick Favors is improved. Utah has Kyle Korver to space the floor though his availability for game 1 may be probable. The main point is Utah finally gets to know how they matchup to Houston at full strength without a rest or preparation disadvantage. Should be a fun series.