The Houston Rockets are one of the oldest franchises in the NBA. Debuting as the San Diego Rockets in 1967, the franchise moved to Houston four years later and have called H-Town its home since.
If you talk to a Rockets fan, they would most likely gush about when they reached the pinnacle of basketball glory twice over when they won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Their eyes would probably also light up talking about their modern-day Rockets. While they have not achieved their goal of winning their first title in 25 years just yet, they are still one of the best teams in the NBA today and feature arguably the most unique playing style of all time by taking small ball to the extreme.
Unfortunately, Rockets fans, like any other fan base, also have those moments that they don’t ever want to bring up. They will surely go silent if ever you bring these topics to the table. But if you have every intention to shut them up, then by all means, remind them of these bitter moments. Here are some of the most heartbreaking moments in Houston Rockets history.
Ralph Sampson’s Knee Issues after 1986 Finals Stint
The 1985-86 Rockets featured a young towering duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Olajuwon and Sampson had been their two no. 1 overall picks in successive drafts and the two stars immediately made an impact for the Rockets. After a brief rebuild, Houston, which made the Finals in 1981, were back in contention with their “Twin Towers” playing just their second season together.
Houston finished with a 51-31 record, their best franchise record ever at the time, good for second in the Western Conference. The Rockets swept to the first round and defeated the Denver Nuggets in six games in round two, en route to a Western Conference Finals showdown against the defending champion Lakers. After losing Game 1, Houston shocked the world when they won the next four and eliminated the defending champs to advance to the Finals.
In the Finals, they faced the Boston Celtics, their tormentors five years ago in 1981 The match-up featured Houston’s young “Twin Towers” against Boston’s veteran-laden squad led by their Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. The Rockets eventually succumbed to the Celtics in six games.
Unfortunately, Houston was not able to build on this Finals run as Sampson eventually struggled with knee issues throughout the rest of his career. Houston never saw the “Twin Towers” at their full potential. And this 1986 Finals run, unfortunately, was the peak of what could have been a dominant big man tandem in Houston. From that point, the Rockets saw seven seasons of either early round exits from the playoffs or missing the postseason entirely. Fortunately, 1994 and 1995 became very good years for them.
John Stockton’s Dagger Three to Send Them Packing in 1997
This is a shot that will forever haunt Rockets fans all over the world.
NBA fans continue to wonder how Michael Jordan’s Bulls would pit against Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in the Finals. With Houston winning the two NBA championships during Jordan’s almost two-year hiatus, which team would come out on top if the two champion teams faced off in the championship round?
Unfortunately, that never came into fruition, and this dagger three from Utah Jazz legend John Stockton is responsible for not making it happen. For a little bit of context, Utah and Houston faced off in the 1997 Western Conference Finals. The Jazz found themselves getting knocked off by the Rockets in some of their playoff runs in years past.
But this time, the Jazz broke out and surged to a 3-2 lead after winning a pivotal Game 5 in Utah. Game 6 in Houston turned out to be a tightly-contested game. The Jazz found themselves in possession with 2.6 seconds remaining and the score deadlocked at 100. Stockton, who had been torching the Rockets in the fourth quarter, sprung open near the logo and found a wide open spot to launch from three.
And so became the infamous call: “Stockton, open, three. Yeah! John Stockton sends the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals.” To Jazz fans, it was certainly music to their ears, especially after years and years of playoff failures. For Rockets fans, it was a play that they probably never want to see again.
Blowing the 2018 Western Conference Finals after Losing Chris Paul in Game 5
This one stings more recently, and arguably, it’s probably the one that stings the most. The 2017-18 Rockets were the best team in the league, finishing the regular season with a 65-17 record. Likewise, they featured a juggernaut offense to go along with a top-notch defense. They poured out all of their efforts and plans with the goal of dethroning and taking down the almighty Golden State Warriors and winning the NBA title.
Truth be told, the Rockets and Warriors eventually found themselves on a collision course in that year’s Western Conference Finals. Houston lost its homecourt advantage in Game 1, but regained it with an impressive Game 4 win. After their series-tying victory in Golden State, it seemed like the momentum had swung to Houston’s favor.
The Rockets took advantage of that momentum and dominated the Dubs in Game 5. That was it. All they needed was one more win, and they would finally take down the mighty Warriors and advance to the Finals. Unfortunately, in the closing seconds of Game 5, with a 3-2 series lead already in their pockets, All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who was having an incredible series, fell awkwardly and started limping.
The then 32-year old had tweaked his hamstring. He missed the rest of the series. The Rockets still had a couple of chances to knock off the Warriors in Games 6 and 7. In fact, they held double-digit leads in both games. However, the Rockets squandered both games without the presence of their veteran All-Star on the floor, including missing 27 straight triples in the deciding Game 7, and saw their historic season dissipate in disappointing fashion.
Certainly, the fact that they got so close hurts the most.
Just Can’t Get Over the Dubs, Even With KD Out
The Rockets took a step back in the 2018-19 regular season and finished with just the fourth best record in the Western Conference. After dominating the Utah Jazz in the opening round, their frequent tormentors in the Golden State Warriors came next in round two.
Unlike last year, however, the expectations for Houston weren’t as high. Nonetheless, the Rockets were still the Rockets, and it was a known fact that they built their team to take down the Warriors. With both teams winning their respective games on their home floor, the stage was set for another classic Game 5.
Golden State came storming out of the gates in the pivotal contest and erected a 20-point lead in the second quarter. However, the Rockets came back with a haymaker of their own and completed their comeback in the third quarter. With both teams in a tight contest, Warriors superstar Kevin Durant suddenly came up limping. The Warriors eventually ruled him out for the contest and possibly longer, and they had no choice but to go on with the series without the two-time Finals MVP.
Throughout the 2019 postseason, Durant was having one of the most dominant playoff runs in recent memory. It seemed like the Warriors badly needed him to win their third title in a row. With Durant gone, Houston had another massive opportunity to finally get past their demons.
Houston did drop Game 5 in Golden State. However, without Durant, many believed there was no way the Warriors could go on and win the next two games to advance. The Rockets were favored to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Game 6 came. Even with Stephen Curry struggling mightily throughout the first half, going scoreless through the first 24 minutes of action, the Rockets still found themselves deadlocked at the half with Golden State. This spelled doom for Houston.
Both teams went back and forth in the final period. In the end, however, Curry proved to be too much. The Warriors proved to be too much. Klay Thompson knocked down the dagger three with 36 seconds remaining to put them up by six. Another shot to sink the hearts of every Rockets fan in Toyota Center.
And so with another exit coming at the hands of the Warriors, the Chris Paul era came to a close in Houston. They eventually traded the aging All-Star for James Harden’s buddy Russell Westbrook in the summer of 2019. So far, the experiment is going relatively well, with Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey going all in on small ball.
The Houston Rockets’ journey to a championship still isn’t over. One thing is for sure, a Larry O’Brien trophy will certainly heal their heartbreaks over these past few years.