The San Antonio Spurs — Houston Rockets rivalry had been relatively dormant for almost two decades. There were moments between the David Robinson/Hakeem Olajuwon days, such as 13 in 35, but the IH-10 Rivalry hadn’t made it to the playoffs since The Admiral and The Dream had squared off.
That all began to change when a rising adversary of the Spurs Drive for Five moved from Oklahoma City to Houston. James Harden’s arrival helped lead the Rockets to their best era since the 1990’s, bringing the other Texas rivalry back into focus. It was full of classic moments throughout, the most recent being last season’s instant classic that featured Lonnie Walker IV’s career night, but also one of the biggest officiating blunders ever, with the refs missing a blatantly obvious Harden dunk, and then botched the Coach’s Challenge rules by not reviewing the call at Mike D’Antoni’s request — all leading to my favorite SP episode with J.R. Wilco when the Rockets tried to protest the outcome of the game.
What made the rivalry feel real again was that playoff series that had been missing for 22 years, and it finally happened in the second round of 2017, with the Spurs initially being favored to win but having to battle through losing Tony Parker to a season-ending injury and Kawhi Leonard in spots (including all of Game 6) to a sprained ankle. The result was an instant classic in Game 5, followed by a shocking blowout in Game 6 when Harden was essentially a no-show while the short-handed Spurs led a wire-to-wire blowout.
A couple of these aforementioned games may remind many of the one aspect that perhaps best defined Harden’s time with the Rockets, at least in the eyes of Spurs fans: their uncanny ability to block him in the clutch. It happened at least five times, dating back to Tim Duncan in 2015, all the way to Jakob Poeltl (twice) last season. There was also the Manu Ginobili one in there somewhere.
So with that, we say goodbye to James Harden, who is now on his way to the Brooklyn Nets. Thanks for helping resurrect a once classic-turned-dormant rivalry, and most importantly, thank you for all the fond memories. I’m only sorry that the Spurs won’t get one more chance to say “goodbye” over these next two games when the Rockets come to town. Those moments will be missed.