Important Victory

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat the Nuggets in Houston 130-104

This was as important of a win as the Rockets are going to get this season. The Denver Nuggets are one of Houston's direct rivals in the Western Conference and Houston dropping a game earlier in the season to them hurt. The tiebreaker between these two teams has the possibility of becoming really valuable down the line so preventing Denver from getting it tonight was huge.

The Nuggets were also one of the first teams to effectively employ the trapping scheme on James Harden so Houston being able to show that they can counter that as effectively as they did tonight is also big. There's a non-zero chance Denver is one of the teams Houston will have to get through in the playoffs so this game could serve a blueprint for Houston.

Eric Gordon's return has been huge for Houston (7 of 12 from three-point range in two games) and his threat from beyond the arc provides an instant solution to teams running to trap Harden. D'Antoni went to Gordon several times in this game when the traps started to work for a brief period. Gordon also took away a significant minute burden away from Westbrook and Harden tonight (both played 34 minutes).

Surprisingly, one of the big stories of this game may end up being 21-year old big man Isaiah Hartenstein securing the backup center role in the rotation for Houston. Hartenstein posted his first NBA career double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal on 6 of 8 shooting from the field and 4 of 6 shooting from the charity stripe) off the bench in 14 minutes. The Rockets have struggled to find competent and reliable backup center minutes all season so Hartenstein emergence could help shore up one of their weakest roster spots.

Star of the game: James Harden continued his trend of playing unbelievable on New Year's Eve, tallying 35 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal on 10 of 17 shooting from the field and 6 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Harden did this on a surprisingly low 34 minutes as the Rockets were able to pull away from the Nuggets late and Eric Gordon provided some much needed depth for Houston's guard rotation.

Honorable mention: With the Nuggets trapping James Harden hard early on, Russell Westbrook responded by attacking the basket, hitting tough mid-range jumpers, and finding teammates for open shots. Westbrook had 28 points, 7 assists, and 3 rebounds on 11 for 22 shooting and 6 of 6 shooting from the free throw line.

Key moment: After the Rockets had as much as a 17-point lead earlier in the game, the Nuggets had cut it to 92-89 by the end of the third quarter. Houston responded with a 19-3 run to open the fourth quarter and effectively put the Nuggets away.

Up next: The Rockets play their next game in Houston on Friday at 7:00 p.m. against the Philadelphia 76ers.

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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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