The Houston Rockets are one of the most storied franchises in the NBA, evidenced by their impressive stable of iconic teams throughout the years.
What made these Rockets squads truly great was the level of competition they had to face in their never-ending quest for greatness.
Playing in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Rockets have had to go to war with some of the best basketball teams ever assembled on their way to two NBA titles and four Finals appearances.
Let’s list down H-Town’s five fiercest rivalries in franchise history.
5. San Antonio Spurs
The state of Texas is home to three NBA franchises (Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas), and each has won at least one NBA title. Although the Rockets also share a healthy sibling rivalry with the Mavs, it’s the Spurs that have been giving them fits for quite some time now.
The height of their rivalry brewed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when both squads emerged as up-and-coming contenders. They also had two of the best centers in the league at the time, as Houston was bannered by Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and the Spurs had “The Admiral” David Robinson.
Things intensified in the 1994-95 season when some fans felt that Olajuwon was robbed of his second consecutive MVP, which went to Robinson. Olajuwon, of course, channeled all those frustrations in the WCF, when the sixth-seeded Rockets took down the top-seeded Spurs in six games.
Both squads have remained competitive since then and would meet in the playoffs several more times.
It is also worth noting that the now-iconic T-Mac game in 2004 — the one where he scored 13 points in 33 seconds — also came at the expense of the Spurs.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have pretty much been rivals of almost every Western Conference team throughout the years, and the Rockets have had their fair share of battles against the Purple and Gold.
Houston actually found success against LA’s legendary squad of the ’80s, becoming the only Western Conference team to defeat the Showtime Lakers in a playoff series at the height of their powers in 1986. They also edged the Lakers in the first round in 1996. LA bounced back in 1999 when they eliminated the Rockets in the opening round.
The Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era in the 2000s also figured in plenty of matchups against the Lakers. After getting eliminated by the Lakers once more in 2004, the pair of improved teams met in the second round in 2009. The now-classic series stretched to seven games, with the Lakers once again besting Houston in Game 7 after Yao suffered a season-ending hairline fracture of his left foot.
3. Seattle SuperSonics
Like the Jazz, the Sonics also had Houston’s number early on. The explosive tandem of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp eliminated the Rockets in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Semis. This loss fueled Houston’s title run in the next two seasons after Olajuwon gathered the team and famously stated “we go from here” after that that 1993 letdown.
The Rockets did not face the Sonics in the postseason in 1994 and 1995. The rivalry was renewed in ’96, as Seattle denied the Rockets a chance for a three-peat by sweeping them in the second round en route to a Finals trip against the Chicago Bulls.
2. Golden State Warriors
The Dubs are indeed the Rockets’ fiercest rivals of the modern era.
This rivalry was put on hold this season given the Warriors’ struggles, but they did figure in countless battles in recent years.
Golden State got the better of this rivalry, starting in 2015 when they handily spanked the Rockets in five games in the WCF. Houston barely made the playoffs the following year as an eighth seed, where they once again met the Dubs. They were eliminated early, dropping another 4-1 verdict in the first round.
James Harden emerged as the MVP of the 2017-18 season, and the Rockets were deemed as the biggest threat to the Warriors’ dynasty. They appeared on the brink of revenge versus the Dubs, racing to a 3-2 lead in the 2018 WCF.
Bad luck struck when starting point guard Chris Paul injured his hamstring and was unavailable for Games 6 and 7. Houston lost both games and got ousted by the Dubs yet again.
Then, in 2018-19, the Rockets failed to capitalize on Kevin Durant’s injury in the second round of the playoffs. Houston took home a 4-2 series loss, a fourth playoff defeat in five years at the hands of Golden State.
This led to a trade of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook.
1. Utah Jazz
You know a rivalry is great when both sides manage to win against each other. This could be said for the Rockets and Jazz teams of the ’90s.
The third-seeded Rockets were upset by the sixth-seeded Jazz in Olajuwon’s rookie year in 1984-85. Houston got revenge on Utah during back-to-back title conquests in 1994 and 1995, running through the Jazz on both playoff occasions.
During the Rockets’ downfall in the next seasons, it was once again the Jazz team that showed them the door. Karl Malone and John Stockton edged the Big 3 of Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley in the 1997 WCF. Stockton hit a dramatic last-second shot to give Utah a 4-2 series win.
The Rockets were once again ousted by the top-seeded Jazz in the first round of the playoffs the following year.
We never got to see how the Rockets could have fared against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls thanks to the dominance of the Jazz at the time, plus Jordan’s retirement.