The Jazz–Rockets rivalry is an NBA rivalry between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets. The rivalry began in the 1990s when the Rockets, led by dominant center Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Jazz, led by the pick-and-roll duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton, were playoff powers in the Midwest Division. The teams faced each other four times in the NBA Playoffs during the decade. In all four instances, the winner was the eventual Western Conference champion and played in the NBA Finals. In 2007, the rivalry was restored as the two teams met again in the playoffs and a showdown of two of the best 1-2 combos of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming of the Rockets and Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer of the Jazz.
Stock, The Mailman, and The Dream arrive
The major players of both squads, Olajuwon, Malone, and Stockton, were all drafted in the mid-1980s, an era in which many other great players were drafted, mostly in the same years as each other. Hakeem Olajuwon, who led the University of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" squad to three Final Four appearances, was drafted first overall by Houston in 1984. John Stockton, on the other hand, was drafted sixteenth by Utah from Gonzaga in the same year and was relatively unknown at the time. The Jazz pulled off another draft steal when they selected Karl Malone thirteenth overall from Louisiana Tech the next year.
The first meeting in the playoffs between the Rockets and the Jazz was in the 1985 NBA Playoffs. Houston, led by its "Twin Towers" of Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon, amassed a 48-34 record in 1984-85, earning a second-place finish in the Midwest Division and the third seed in the playoffs. Utah, tied for fourth in the Midwest with San Antonio, wound up as the sixth seed, reaching the postseason for only the second time in franchise history. Utah, with Stockton, Adrian Dantley, and shot-blocking center Mark Eaton (who won the shot-blocking title and set all-time league records for total blocks (456) and blocks per game (5.6)), defeated Houston and its Twin Towers in 5 games despite losing Eaton to an injured right knee.
1994 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference Finals
The teams met in their first major clash with each other in the 1994 NBA Playoffs. Olajuwon was widely considered not only the best post player in the league during an era of great centers, but ever since Michael Jordan's first retirement from the NBA, the best player in the league, winning both the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and his second consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award for the 1993-94 season. Along with Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, and Sam Cassell, the Rockets proved to be a force in the Western Conference. They won the Midwest Division Title with a record of 58-24. As the second seed in the Western Conference, they ousted the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers three games to one, but had trouble with Charles Barkley's Suns, who won the first two games in Houston. The Rockets won the series, four games to three.
The Jazz, with their established duo of Malone (who finished fifth in the league with 25.2 points per game and topped 19, 000 career points to move into 25th place on the all-time list) and Stockton (who led the league in assists for the seventh straight season with 12.6 assists per game) and the pick and roll offense, also had Jeff Hornacek (acquired in a trade with Philadelphia for Jeff Malone), veteran forward Tom Chambers, and center Felton Spencer to complement the two leaders. The team posed a challenge to the Rockets for the Midwest Division Title when it won ten straight games from late February to early March and then eight of nine games to finish the season 53-29. Utah defeated San Antonio three games to one, but received a scare from the Denver Nuggets (the eighth seed that upset first-seeded Seattle in the first round) when a 3-0 series lead for the Jazz evaporated into a 3-3 series tie. The Jazz advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three years to face Houston.