Nagging injuries of years past no longer an issue for these All-Stars
POSTED: Dec 18, 2014 11:05 AM ET
Stephen Curry has found stability and stardom in the NBA after some early ankle injury woes.
The point guard party starts at 10:30 ET tonight (on TNT) when a basketball game at Oracle Arena will seem like a blur. You can't go wrong whenever Golden State's Stephen Curry and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook share the same floor, and even better, the same reassuring confidence about their physical well-being.
This is evident when Westbrook makes an angry, mad dash to the rim, leaving behind a scattered trail of defenders. It's also evident when Curry breaks down his man to create space and get open from deep. Their movements are sure and quick, without the slightest bit of hesitation -- the sign of players who trust their bodies won't betray them again.
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Here in the Age of the Injury, where important players have fallen like tears the last several years -- and sadly, rookie phenom Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks is the latest -- Curry and Westbrook have recovered and emerged largely unaffected ... if not unscarred.
Imagine how much we would be deprived, not to mention the Warriors and Thunder, if these two were never the same again? Isn't the NBA better off with two point guards who are show-stopping entertainers who seldom experience a poor night?
Curry has shaken off an annoying stretch of ankle sprains that threatened to disrupt his career not long before it started. Westbrook had multiple knee scopes in less than two years. And here they are, not exactly subscribing to the Derrick Rose recovery timetable, blowing up courts everywhere.
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With all due respect to the Memphis Grizzlies, who halted the Warriors' 16-game win streak two days ago, Golden State and OKC are the NBA's hottest teams and, dare we say, the most dangerous ( strictly from an eyeball test). They're hardly one-man teams, but Curry and Westbrook are clearly the soul of those clubs and quite possibly No. 1 and No. 2 at the league's deepest position.
But neither arrived at this point without a fair share of worry about their physical stability. And in the case of Curry, his ankle issues may never be completely wiped out. When this month began, he sat the final eight minutes of a win over the Detroit Pistons (not that the Warriors needed him down the stretch) when he felt a tweak. Whenever this happened in the past, the Warriors (and Curry) held their collective breaths.
The difference now? These heart-stopping scenes are becoming less and less frequent. After missing 40 games in 2011-12, when he had arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle, Curry has missed only five games due to ankle-related problems since, and none this season.
You could say Curry and the Warriors' title hopes are being held together by a pair of braces that are now part of his uniform. They're more important than sweat socks. After undergoing surgery in 2011, Curry conducted a mad search for a brace that would restrict if not erase the chance of chronic injury. The sprains were worrisome enough at the time for the Warriors that they offered him only a four-year, $44 million extension. Both sides assumed a degree of risk, and in hindsight, it was well worth taking as Curry is one of the league's biggest bargains.
Plenty of companies made their pitches, and Curry settled on Zamst, an Irvine, Calif.,-based company with roots in Japan. The model he wears, A2-DX, is form-fitting enough that Curry doesn't need a larger shoe size and has a full range of motion. Zamst also makes braces tailored for each ankle, an option that came in handy when Curry started spraining his right ankle. He now wears braces on both ankles.
"We knew Stephen had great potential as a player and it seemed like a good fit for us," said Laura Cleveland, the company's marketing manager. "We knew the problems he had in the past and we stood behind our product. We knew the brace would hold up."
The company began making protective braces two decades ago when it outfitted the Japanese volleyball team prior to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Curry is by far their most famous client and given how much he means to the Warriors and the NBA, their most valuable. It's in everyone's best interest that Curry stays upright.
"I make a lot of different cuts, and I feel secure in that when I put my foot in that brace, it's not going to go anywhere," he said. "It's a good feeling to have."
In addition to leading the Warriors in points (23.5), assists (7.6) and steals (1.9), Curry is averaging a career-best 5.2 rebounds, evidence of his lack of fear in his ankle. No worries about injury translates into no worries about his career. Both are going smoothly. Curry could start in the All-Star Game at midseason and collect MVP votes by season's end.
And if he keeps this up, so too could Westbrook. A meniscus tear isn't as threatening as an ACL. Still, Westbrook had to endure three procedures after injuring his knee in the 2013 playoffs. Last season he was held to 46 games and sat on the second night of back-to-backs. Since then, any pain has been felt by the rim and his defenders.
Westbrook's scoring average has jumped from 21.8 ppg in 2013-14 to 26.4 this season (along with his 6.8 apg and 5.8 rpg). He's shooting 49.5 percent and usually checks the other team's best guard. He changes speed and direction better than anyone in the game, attacks the rim constantly and makes quick stops on pull-up jumpers. Basically, it's the same old Westbrook, with perhaps an additional dose of fearlessness.
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When Westbrook returned a few weeks ago from a broken right hand that caused him to miss 14 games, he was dunking with authority -- all while wearing a protective brace. That's the sign of an insane player or a determined one -- or maybe both.
"Some point guards can only control the game by how they pass," Kevin Durant said recently, "or some might do it by only scoring. But he can do it in many different ways. He comes to work every single day."
Durant is the reigning MVP. In NBA history, the only teammates to win back-to-back MVPs were Bob Cousy (1957) and Bill Russell (1958). As the Thunder rise in the standings (they've won 9 of 10 once Westbrook returned to the lineup), Westbrook can only strengthen his case. How convincing would it look if OKC, after a slow start due Westbrook and Durant's injuries, finishes among the top 3 or 4 in the deep Western Conference?
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"All I do is play my game and try to win," said Westbrook, which is about as much as he'll ever say about himself.
All you need to hear from Westbrook is the occasional primal scream after a dunk to know how he's feeling, not only about his state of mind, but OKC's, too. Durant has his MVP largely because of how he played sans Westbrook, but Durant knows he'll never win a title without him.
And so, the Warriors and Thunder are on pace to perhaps stretch their season into June. Tonight's game serves as a checkpoint as two of the West's top four teams angle for whatever edge they can get.
In a sense, they've already won the biggest test. While some stars have been slow to recover from injuries and seek to regain their old ways, two point guards are busy pushing beyond that ceiling.
Curry and Westbrook have never looked this sharp on the floor and this secure in their health ever since they first grabbed an ailing body part.
Suddenly, we get Warriors-Thunder, a December game worth watching, one that will have us wondering this much about Curry and Westbrook: Who'll be the last point guard standing? Not Thursday, but come summertime?
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