Much like any other team in the NBA, the Houston Rockets have their fair share of intense rivalries throughout the league. Our list here today dates all the way back to the 1980s, and also includes a more dated rivalry in the 2010s.
Without further adieu, here are the Rockets’ four most hated rivals.
Moses Malone has gone down in history as one of the best Rockets of all time. His stint with Houston was characterized by a number of memorable postseason runs, including a trip to the Finals in 1981 — the first time in Rockets franchise history.
One of, if not the biggest stumbling block that stood in their way at that time were the Boston Celtics. In 1980, the Rockets were pitted against the Celtic in the playoffs. Houston was still part of the Eastern Conference at that time, and they faced off against a very young Larry Bird (in his rookie year) and the C’s in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Malone and company were outclassed by a much better Boston side, with the series ending in an embarrassing four-game sweep in favor of the Celtics.
A year later, these two would face off again in the postseason. This time around, it would be in the Finals, with the Rockets being shifted to the West that season. Houston had the revenge narrative on their side, and this was the first time they reached the Finals since the franchise was established in 1967.
The Rockets were able to put up a better fight this time, but they still fell to the Celtics, 4-2. A couple of years later, Malone parted ways with the Rockets to join the Philadelphia 76ers, where he won the championship in just his first season with the squad.
San Antonio Spurs
The Rockets may have some history against the Dallas Mavericks, but as far as inter-division rivalries go, there’s no denying that the San Antonio Spurs are Houston’s fiercest rivals in the Southwest Division.
Being in the same division, these two teams play against each other several times within the regular season. However, some of their most memorable meetings have got to be during the playoffs.
In 1995, the Rockets were on their quest to win back-to-back titles. Standing in their way in the Western Conference Finals were the Spurs, who finished with a 62-20 record in the regular season to clinch the top seed in the West. They were led by season MVP David Robinson, and this WCF matchup was perhaps one of the best series performances of Hakeem Olajuwon. He went toe-to-toe against Robinson in what was a battle between two of the best big men in the league ever. Houston defeated the Spurs in six games and went on to sweep the Orlando Magic in the Finals (another tough matchup for Olajuwon as he faced a young Shaquille O’Neal), en route to their second straight title.
It was also the Spurs who fell victim to Tracy McGrady’s epic 13-point scoring spree in 35 seconds back in 2004. T-Mac single-handedly erased a double-digit lead by the Spurs with under a minute remaining. This was a regular-season encounter, but it was very memorable nonetheless.
Golden State Warriors
This rivalry is the most recent one we have on our list. This was the James Harden-Chris Paul era Rockets against the Golden State Warriors dynasty led by none other than back-to-back MVP winner Stephen Curry. These two sides memorably faced off against each other in the postseason four times in five years.
In 2015, the Rockets fell to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. 4-1, en route to Golden State’s first title. They went at it again next season, but this time around, it was in the first round. The Rockets tried their best to upset the 73-9 Warriors, but once again, they fell 4-1 to the Dubs.
A couple of years later, a meeting in the WCF was in the books yet again. This was without a doubt the best (and the most controversial) series between these two sides. The Rockets pushed the eventual champs all the way to Game 7, but ultimately, Houston fell short yet again. One last meeting took place in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. This resulted in another heartbreaking defeat in the series for the Rockets (4-2), which pretty much put an end to Paul’s time in Houston. The All-Star point guard was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook that same offseason.
This was one of the hottest rivalries in the league during the 1990s, with these two powerhouse sides meeting in the playoffs four times during the decade. In fact, Rockets news at the time always feature the rivalry that has developed pretty intensely over the years.
Their first meeting came in 1994, as the Jazz posed as Houston’s biggest threat in the West in their quest for their first championship. The Rockets won the series, 4-1, and advanced to the Finals to defeat the New York Knicks in the Finals for title No. 1. These two sides went at it again the following season in a first-round matchup. The Rockets came away victorious again, after a hard-fought five-game series. Houston went all the way to win their second consecutive championship that season.
The Jazz would exact their revenge in 1997 and 1998 in the exact same fashion. Utah defeated the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals in 1997, and then in the first round in 1998. In both seasons, the Jazz faced off (and lost) against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Because of the Jazz, we never got to see Olajuwon and company take on MJ and the Bulls in the Finals.