The Slatest

Stephen Curry Watch: The Best Conference Finals Series in Modern NBA History Begins Monday Night

Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant in Oakland, California, on March 3.

 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

The Stephen Curry Lower Extremity Watch is a running feature that assesses the state of the Golden State Warriors star’s infamously sensitive ankle and knee joints on a scale ranging from “Not Great” to “Touch and Go” to “They’re Probably Fine” to “100 Percent Ready to Rock.”

Besides Golden State’s chance at cementing itself as the greatest team of all time, a big part of the reason that NBA fans everywhere have been anguished by Stephen Curry’s gimpy knees and ankles during this postseason is the excitement that was otherwise building for an anticipated Western Conference Finals series between the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. As incredible as the Warriors were this season, there were actually points during the year when San Antonio—which finished with 67 regular-season wins—was considered the better team by the FiveThirtyEight site’s “Elo” ratings of team quality. With LeBron’s bickering Cavaliers expected to win the Eastern Conference but not expected to put up much of a fight against the West’s champ in the finals proper, Spurs-Warriors was to be 2016’s main event, its clash of titans, its showdown between a comic-book superhero and another comic-book superhero with whom it was feuding for arcane reasons. It was going to be the best conference finals series ever.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the basketball version of Captain America vs. Iron Man: Iron Man got whomped. The Oklahoma City Thunder wiped out the Spurs in six games in the second round, suddenly transforming from an underachieving squad that surrounded its two stars with a bunch of inconsistent randos into a juggernaut of terrifying giants. In fact, the Thunder’s performance against the Spurs was so dominating that FiveThirtyEight now says that the Western Conference Finals matchup we do have—Warriors-Thunder—is, according to Elo ratings, the highest-quality conference finals pairing since the NBA adopted its 16-team playoff system in 1984. (In fact, going by calculations FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine posted on Twitter, Warriors-Thunder is actually a better matchup than every modern Finals series except Bulls-Jazz in 1997.) In Curry and the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the series features three of the top five players in this year’s MVP voting; the Warriors’ Draymond Green makes it four of the top seven. OKC-GSW is also a rematch of the participants in the best NBA regular-season game of the year, which Stephen Curry won by calmly sizing up and canning a 38-foot three-pointer (!):

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Speaking of Curry, who returned from injury last week and immediately set an NBA record for points scored in a single overtime: He’s been practicing without a knee brace and says he doesn’t expect his MCL sprain to be a topic of concern going forward. His ankles, meanwhile, have held up fine since a scare in the first round. While he did say that his knee is literally not quite back to peak condition yet, we’re going to take some poetic license and declare, as Warriors-Thunder gets underway Monday night at 9 p.m. in Oakland, California, that Stephen Curry’s lower extremities are 100 percent ready to rock. Let’s go!

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Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson for Slate. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

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