The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs not only share a state, but also a highway, Interstate 10. They are two of the most successful teams in the Western Conference and have met in the playoffs a few times. But unlike other rivalries, there aren’t a lot of altercations, bench-clearing brawls, or war of words between players from both teams.
Instead, this is a rivalry built on great individual performances, improbable comebacks, and memorable playoff encounters, from the Rockets’ playoff upsets in the 1980s to their most recent postseason battle three years ago. Here are three of the most savage moments from this Texas rivalry:
3. Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 33 seconds to fuel Rockets (2004)
The Rockets and Spurs have had many memorable playoff battles in their rivalry. So what’s a low-stakes regular-season game doing on this list? On December 9, 2004, with 40 seconds left, the Spurs led the Rockets, 86-78, and the game was all but over. Even most of the fans at the Toyota Center had already left. But that was when Rockets star Tracy McGrady decided that he didn’t want to lose. What followed next was one of the greatest late-game comebacks the league has ever seen—a classic in every Rockets news archive.
McGrady drilled four 3-pointers, a free throw, and a steal in 33 seconds to help Houston take an improbable 81-80 victory over San Antonio. And it’s not as if the Spurs made it easy on him, as they were one of the league’s best defenses, and all his shots were well-contested. But for 33 seconds, there was nothing the Spurs could do to stop McGrady.
The image of McGrady pumping his fist after draining the go-ahead 3-pointer remains an unforgettable one, and the fact that the comeback came against the rival Spurs, who went on to win the title that season, must have made it sweeter.
2. Manu Ginobili’s game-saving block on James Harden in WCF (2017)
James Harden is known as one of the best players of his generation and one of the most lethal scorers the league has ever seen. So in Game 5 of the 2017 Western Conference Semifinals, with the Rockets down by three in the final seconds of overtime, as Harden prepared to launch a 3-pointer, a second overtime period seemed inevitable. That was probably when Manu Ginobili said, “Not on my watch.”
Harden made a jab step and drove past Ginobili to take a three, but the 39-year old was quick to recover, blocking Harden’s shot from behind as time expired, preserving the Spurs’ 110-107 win. The heart-stopping win seemed to take the fight out of the Rockets, as San Antonio beat them soundly in Game 6, 114-75, with Harden scoring just 10 points as the Spurs advanced to the Conference Finals. Ginobili retired the following season, but he provided basketball fans with countless memories that they will not soon forget, including that game-saving block on Harden.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon spoils David Robinson’s MVP coronation in WCF (1995)
The rivalry reached its apex so far in 1995 when the Spurs and Rockets met in an all-Texas Western Conference Finals. The Spurs, led by league MVP David Robinson, had a league-best 62-20 record and had beaten the Rockets in five of six regular-season meetings. The Rockets’ meanwhile, stumbled into the Conference Finals with the fifth seed and a 47-35 record. But one thing Houston had was center Hakeem Olajuwon, who won the MVP and led the Rockets to the championship last season.
He believed he deserved a second straight MVP, but the league thought otherwise, giving it to David Robinson, who led the Spurs to a better record. In Game 2, NBA Commissioner David Stern awarded the MVP trophy to Robinson. That was all the motivation Olajuwon needed.
By the time the buzzer sounded, The Dream had 41 points on 13-of-18 shooting, 16 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks, showing Robinson and the rest of the league why he deserved to be MVP. The Rockets would win the series in six games and marched all the way to their second straight championship, with Olajuwon proving that sometimes, you have to let your game do the talking.