Not pretty, but it counts

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat Nets in Houston 108-98

If you were looking for the Rockets to dissect a .500 team with a buzzer-to-buzzer blowout, this wasn't the game. However, if you were looking for Houston to bounce back from their ugly loss against Golden State on Christmas, at the very least, you got that.

"It wasn't pretty," said Mike D'Antoni after the game. "We got some things we definitely got to get better at."

It wasn't that Houston was bad tonight, but their effort was inconsistent to say the least. The Rockets began the game on fire on both ends, taking a 42-20 lead to end the first quarter. However, as they continued to miss shots, their effort started to taper off.

Westbrook had a lot to do with Houston's early lead, but unfortunately for Houston, he was also responsible for a lot of the missed shots. In the first quarter, Westbrook scored 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting, 6 of those 7 field goals coming from mid-range. However, those same shots didn't fall for the rest of the game as Westbrook was 4 of 19 from the field for the rest of the game.

As the Nets got creative against Harden, shooters like P.J. Tucker (0 for 5 from three-point range), Danuel House (2 of 10 from three-point range), and Ben McLemore (1 of 6 from three-point range) could not take advantage of the open looks they were receiving, leaving an opening for the Nets to climb back into the game.

"We had a lot of open opportunities that we just didn't make," said Harden. "Tuck had some, D-House had some, Ben had some. If we make those shots, it's a different ball game earlier."

In Houston's defense, they were also without Clint Capela (right heel contusion) and Eric Gordon (right knee arthroscopy) which disrupted their floor spacing tonight. Although the Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook (scheduled to miss the second half of this back-to-back), Gordon will return to the rotation and give Houston a fresh body and floor spacing element that they've been lacking.

"It's another shooter and another ball handler," said Harden on Gordon's pending return. "A guy that can be aggressive and make plays. It's a little of what we're missing."

Star of the game: The Nets threw various defenses at James Harden including single man-to-man coverage, a trap, and box and one. However, it was ultimately fruitless as Harden ended the game with 44 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal on 17 of 27 shooting from the field and 6 of 10 shooting from three-point range. Coming off a game in which he was limited to 24 points, Harden was quite simply, brilliant.

Honorable mention: After being fairly quiet for a week, Austin Rivers had one of his better games of the year, scoring 14 points on 5 of 12 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Rivers hit a couple of key shots when the Rockets allowed the Nets to get back into the game and was good defensively tonight.

Key moment: After the Nets took a 90-89 lead with 8:55 remaining in the 4th quarter, Houston battled back with an 18-8 run of their own to end the 4th quarter with James Harden scoring or assisting on 9 of those points.

Up next: The Rockets travel to New Orleans at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow to play the Pelicans.

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After a "qualifying round" of playoffs, the actual Stanley Cup playoffs are here. In a weird hockey world that saw two 12 seeds win in round one and the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference finish last in the round robin and get a four seed, things appear wide open. The lower seeds may actually have a bit of an advantage at the beginning of these series, as they have already gone through an actual elimination round, while the top four seeds played a less intense round robin. As teams still adjust to a long layoff, more upsets could be in order. It should be fun. Here is a look at the matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The Flyers were dominant in the round-robin phase and look very much like a team that can make a deep run. Montreal was the lowest seed in the qualifying tournament, but stunned Pittsburgh, and were the better team throughout the series. Philly, however, is playing much better hockey than their Pennsylvania counterparts. The Canadiens will need a big effort from goalie Carey Price, who is capable of stealing games. Young Flyers goalie Carter Hart was outstanding in the two round-robin games he played and is an emerging star. Philly has more talent, but a goalie like Price can win a series.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

Tampa is as talented a group as you will find in the NHL. They have depth on all lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie. Yet they have a checkered playoff past. Last season, they were dominant in the regular season and looked like a Cup lock. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Jackets. Columbus outplayed a similarly talented team in Toronto in round one and are a tough matchup. Can the Lightning be struck down twice? Absolutely.

Prediction: Jackets in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (6)

The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin and a recent Stanley Cup, and have to be considered a contender against whoever they play. But the Isles play terrific defense, grind you down and get just enough scoring to win games. Plus they have the coach who won the Cup with the Caps, Barry Trotz, which gives them another edge. The Isles are a long shot Cup contender and could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Islanders in 7.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)

The Bruins were the best team in the league in the regular season, but played flat in the round robin, winding up with a fourth seed. It seems a little unfair that they dominated all year but three games determined their fate, but that's life. By now they should have figured things out again and should be able to advance. They are a tricky team, because if they play as poorly as they did last week, Carolina could knock them out. But the Bruins should get better the deeper they get in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have a rising star in Andrei Svechnikov, who had a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers. The Bruins, however, are deeper, more talented and have the more tested and reliable goalie in Tukka Rask.

Prediction: Bruins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Las Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The Golden Knights were impressive in the round-robin, and looked like they did not miss a beat from the break. They were on a 8-2 run before the Rona interruption and swept the three seeding games since. But the Blackhawks are a scary matchup. They dominated Edmonton in the play-in round, winning 3-1 despite being the last team to qualify. They are young and shaky on defense, but still have proven Cup winners like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. It would be foolish to count them out, but the Oilers were a much better matchup for the Hawks. If Crawford dominates in net, they have a fighting chance. But the Knights are on a different level right now.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)

This might be one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. The Avs look like a Cup contender, and Nathan MacKinnon is an MVP candidate and might be one of the most underappreciated superstars in the league. The Coyotes, however, are going to be a tough out. Goalie Darcy Kempner faced a ton of shots against the Predators and held up well. He will have to do the same here. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel provide top end forward play, and Arizona matches up OK here. The Avs should win, but don't be shocked if they are pushed hard.

Prediction: Avs in 6.

Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)

Dallas is an interesting team. The Stars have Stanley Cup-level talent, but they struggle to score at times, which could be a problem in a seven-game series. They play strong D and have great goaltending, but have issues with quicker teams, which bodes well for Calgary. The Flames are also a bit of an enigma, but they seem built for the playoffs. They have two young American-born stars in Johnny Gaudreu and Matthew Tkachuk, solid depth up front and on the back end and can hold their own with most teams. Cam Talbot is the key, however. If he can consistently man the goal the way he did in the series win over Winnipeg, they have a big shot. He finished off the series with a 31-save shutout.

Prediction: Flames in 7.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)

The defending champs were not very good in the round-robin, hence the four seed. But it will probably work out; the Canucks are an easier matchup than what they would have faced with Calgary as a 3 seed. Vancouver is an interesting young team. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are two up and coming stars, but the rest of the lineup is bolstered by gritty vets. Defensemen Quinn Hughes is another young star in the making. Goalie Jacob Markstrom was solid against Minnesota, but he will need to be better in this round. The Canucks could have made a run against Dallas, but hard to see them beating the champs.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

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