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.

Spurs demolish Thunder to take Game 1 of second-round series

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs scores over Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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The second round was supposed to be when things got exciting. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs put on an absolute clinic at home, blowing out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 124-92 to take a 1-0 series lead.

Just about everything went in for San Antonio, particularly for LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, who combined for 63 points. How dominant were they?

Aldridge in particular got anything he wanted against the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s stars were quiet, with Kevin Durant scoring just 16 points and Russell Westbrook 14. San Antonio controlled the game from the start and Oklahoma City never recovered from the opening punch.

It’s hard to imagine Durant and Westbrook are this ineffective again, and hopefully the rest of this series will be a little more competitive. But the Spurs did what the Spurs do, and did nothing to shake the feeling that they’re the favorites to win the west, now that Stephen Curry‘s status is unknown.

Hawks get another playoff shot at King James and Cavaliers

at Philips Arena on April 1, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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ATLANTA (AP) A year ago, Atlanta’s magical season ended with a resounding sweep by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference final.

Now, the Hawks have another shot at LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Feeling confident after an opening-round victory over Boston, the Hawks returned to practice Saturday to begin preparations for the best-of-seven series.

Game 1 is Monday night in Cleveland.

The Hawks were the top-seeded team in the East last season after a record 60-win campaign. It didn’t do them much good against the Cavaliers, who steamrolled Atlanta in four straight games.

Even though they slipped to 48 wins and fourth in the conference, the Hawks actually sound a bit more confident heading into this matchup, largely because of their improved defense and rebounding.

Report: Warriors to replace Luke Walton from outside the organization

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 12: Interim Coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors talks on the sideline during the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 12, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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For the second consecutive year, the Warriors have lost their lead assistant to another team. When the Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry during last year’s playoffs, Steve Kerr promoted Luke Walton to associate head coach and added former journeyman big man Jarron Collins to the bench. Now that Walton is headed to the Lakers as their next head coach, the Warriors will go outside the organization to find a replacement, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. And one name that will likely not be in the mix is David Blatt, who very nearly became an assistant under Kerr in 2014 before being offered the Cavaliers’ head job.

Given Walton’s success this season as interim head coach while Kerr recovered from back surgery, this will undoubtedly be the most attractive assistant job in the league.

Report: Luke Walton’s Lakers contract is for 5 years, $25 million

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 13:  Interim head coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors leads the team against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on January 13, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Warriors 112-110. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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In the last few years, NBA head coaching salaries have skyrocketed, and new Lakers coach Luke Walton is no exception. According to the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan, Walton is getting $25 million over five years, which is the same as Steve Kerr’s deal with the Warriors, now-former Knicks coach Derek Fisher’s deal in New York, and Fred Hoiberg’s deal with the Bulls.

This kind of money has become standard for head coaches who don’t also have front-office power. Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy both get between $7 and $8 million annually to do both jobs. Given how good Walton’s current situation with the Warriors is, the Lakers probably had to be on the high end of the coaching spectrum to get him to leave.