Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers

Will the Nets or Rockets make a Finals splash?

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Flash back to April 26, 2012.

The Nets closed the season with their six straight loss, missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. The Rockets picked up a meaningless win that day, but they had just lost seven of their previous eight games to ensure they’d miss their third straight postseason.

Both teams had plenty of reason for despair, but there were faint signs of hope.

The Nets were moving to Brooklyn that offseason, a figurative fresh start if not a literal one. And the Rockets had their sixth straight winning record, an impressive accomplishment if it could be viewed without the sting of repeatedly barely missing the playoffs.

Then-Nets coach Avery Johnson was hopeful:

“This is our farewell, for good,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “Now we embark on a new opportunity, and it starts when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Even though we lost this game this is a new era in Nets basketball, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Johnson said Brooklyn fans will see a better team next year than this season’s 22-44 squad that finished by losing six straight.

“We like a lot of our guys,” Johnson said. “We definitely need to upgrade in some areas and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Rockets coach Kevin McHale, not so much:

“There’s no way we shouldn’t be in the playoffs this weekend, but we’re not,” McHale said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Both teams were stuck in different places, but both could see cracks to break through into the next level.

And, boy, did they break through.

A year-and-a-half later, both have followed solid steps into the playoffs with monster offseasons that have them holding legitimate NBA Finals aspirations.

Just 15 players have appeared in most of the last 10 All-Star games. Among that select group, only three changed teams this offseason, and all three now play for the Rockets or Nets: Dwight Howard (Houston) and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (Brooklyn).

Though neither team even won a playoff series last season, that type of talent infusion changes the goals considerably.

Yet, as much as the teams seem linked by their stellar summers, Brooklyn and Houston face different challenges now.

The Nets’ aging core – Garnett (37), Pierce (36), Jason Terry (36), Reggie Evans (33), Joe Johnson (32), Andrei Kirilenko (32) and Deron Williams (29) – and their ridiculously high payroll point to a team that has a very short, but very open, championship window. The Lakers’ struggles last season after they splurged to build around old players should give Brooklyn pause, but the Nets are deeper than that Los Angeles team ever hoped to be. If Brooklyn uses that depth to limit minutes  and save players for the playoffs, the results could be tremendous.

On the other hand, the Rockets are not quite as deeply talented. When the Heat dipped far below the cap to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh, it took them a couple years to re-stock the roster by using their cap exceptions. The Rockets probably faces a similar timeline, and thankfully for them, they seem young enough to wait. James Harden (24), Chandler Parsons (25), Jeremy Lin (25), Patrick Beverley (25), Omer Asik (27) and Howard (27) should give Houston a chance to add pieces and tinker.

The Rockets need time. The Nets are probably already running out of it.

But the fact that we can even reasonably discuss both teams’ championship windows is astounding considering where they were just 18 months ago.

Kyrie Irving sticks water-bottle challenge before Cavaliers-Knicks buzzer (video)

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The Cavaliers were trying the water-bottle challenge on the bench late in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but the national telecast showed Cleveland players only failing to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor – including an erratic attempt from LeBron James that bounced onto the court.

Thankfully, the local post-game show had an angle of Kyrie Irving nailing the bottle flip just before the game ended, his toss just leaving his hands before the final buzzer. Count it!

Nicolas Batum zips pass between Tobias Harris’ legs to assist Frank Kaminsky (video)

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Listen up, defenses: Nicolas Batum will throw passes between your legs.

Three things we learned Wednesday: Warriors, Cavaliers try to make statements in December

Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney, left, and Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford reach for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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ESPN thought they had a great double header on Wednesday, but those games were decided by a combined 49 points, you should have flipped over to Hairspray Live. Anyway, here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) You can’t have a statement game in December. But if you could Cleveland, Golden State made them. Can we just skip ahead to Christmas when these two teams finally play each other? Plus by then my shopping will be done, and I’m dreading doing it. We’ve said before the Cavaliers and Warriors have established themselves as the best in their conferences and they made that point with authority on Wednesday.

Cleveland did it thrashing the Knicks 126-94. To be fair, the Knicks were on the second night of a back-to-back and were without Derrick Rose. But that is a small part of the disparity here. First, Phil Jackson may want to not try to piss off the best player on the planet. Just a suggestion. Beyond that, the Knicks have had a good season (12-10), but they match up poorly with Cleveland. They don’t have a good defender for Kyrie Irving. Nobody has a good one for LeBron (well, maybe the Spurs). Kristaps Porzingis struggles to defend in space, and Kevin Love can exploit that. I can go on, but you get the picture. Between beating Toronto Monday and this, the Cavs are back to exploiting their advantages out East.

Golden State made its statement by blowing out a Clippers team that had been the second-best team in the West to this point. The Warriors did it with defense first — Los Angeles shot 39.6 percent as a team. Stephen Curry did a respectable job on Chris Paul (15 points on 14 shots), Klay Thompson blanketed J.J. Redick (just four shots), and Draymond was built to guard Blake Griffin (12 points on 20 shots, with seven turnovers). The Warriors anticipated the Clippers skip passes and turned those into transition chances (Golden State won the fast break points battle 27-11). The Warriors didn’t even have a great night on offense — Curry was 0-of-8 from three — and won 115-98 (and it wasn’t that close). Still, the Warriors ball movement was there.

Marreese Speights is in a unique position — the Clippers backup big was with the Warriors the past few seasons, and he was honest and harsh in his assessment of the differences between these teams.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo got a triple-double on an off night. He’s that good. Portland is not a good defensive team. Improved with Al-Farouq Aminu healthy and back on the court, but still not good. However, their defensive strategy of having their bigs play back and not press high off picks works against Giannis Antetokounmpo because you want to make him a jump shooter anyway — and the Greek Freak was notably frustrated at times Wednesday night.

And he still had a triple double of 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He’s playing that well. Look at it this way, in a Westbrook/Harden world Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging more than 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals a game this season.

The real story for the Bucks was the 27 from Jabari Parker, that’s the reason Milwaukee beat Portland 115-107.

3) Kemba Walker needs to be an All-Star, he got Hornets a win over Pistons. Charlotte shot 34.1 percent Wednesday night, no way they should get a win in that situation. But alas, there was Kemba Walker, who had 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter sparking a Charlotte win, 87-77. Walker is averaging 23.6 shots per game, is shooting a career-best 41.4 percent from three, has a true shooting percentage of 58.2 percent (well above the league average), and is the everything for the Hornet’s offense.

The man deserves to be playing in New Orleans in the All-Star Game this year. I know the East is loaded with quality point guards — Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall — but Kemba has earned the recognition this year.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.