NBA Playoffs 2018: Stephen Curry is officially back to give us the Warriors-Rockets series we deserve

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's the only blip on an otherwise flawless four-year postseason resume for the Warriors: A Game 7 loss to Cleveland in 2016, which soured a potential 3-peat that would have placed Golden State alongside only the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers in the annals of NBA history.

And as great as it was, what do people say about that series? Of course LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were phenomenal, but when breaking down why the Warriors fell short, a common rationale is repeated ad nauseam: "Well, Steph wasn't himself."

Ugh. The 2016 NBA Finals is one of the best battles we've seen in professional sports, and it forever has a "what if" attached to it -- justified or not.

Stephen Curry slipped on the court during Game 4 of the opening round against the Rockets that year, suffering a Grade 1 MCL sprain. He missed just four games before he returned, and the common consensus is that he may have rushed back, that he never fully recovered for the eventual loss to the Cavs in Game 7. Without a fully healthy Curry (remember, this was pre-Kevin Durant), the Warriors lost by the narrowest of margins.

That's why it was so important to see the old Curry during Golden State's 113-104 Game 5 win over the Pelicans, bouncing around, cutting hard off of screens, finishing in traffic. Curry scored 28 points in 37 minutes on 10-of-16 shooting, slowly regaining his super powers with every ovation from the raucous and eager Oracle crowd. It's well documented how the two-time MVP makes life easier for his teammates, and that was on full display in the closeout win over New Orleans.

"You see, when you let the dog off the leash what happens," Durant said of Curry's 37 minutes. "We're going to need him to continue to be aggressive and we'll live with anything after that."

He may have rejoined the lineup a few games ago, but now the old Curry has officially returned, and there aren't going to be any asterisks when it comes to the highly anticipated Western Conference finals against the Rockets -- at least not because of this injury.  

The Warriors -- wisely, in retrospect -- held Curry out the first six games of the 2018 postseason with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee, after he had already missed the final 10 contests of the regular season. Though Curry was aching and itching to get back on the court earlier, you can't help but think that the organization had those 2016 Finals in mind when deciding to keep him out that extra bit, just to be sure.

The results couldn't have worked out better for the Warriors, who needed only five games each to dispatch the Spurs and the Pelicans, and they now look to be at full strength, peaking when it matters most, as they head into their showdown with Houston. And just for good measure, both teams will have five days of rest before the series starts on Monday.

Both the Warriors and Rockets are coming into this series healthy and clicking -- just watch the highlights of Chris Paul eviscerating the Jazz in the final minutes of their own elimination game just hours before the Warriors' victory -- and the stage is set for the showdown we've been anticipating since Paul was traded to Houston back in July.

Golden State has met little resistance from the West over the past four seasons, and Houston finally looks to be the worthy adversary that critics of the NBA's lack of parity have been clamoring for. The last thing we needed was any reason to detract from the series, and a banged-up Steph would have been exactly that. If he's not 100 percent, he's certainly doing a great job hiding it.

"Hopefully we'll have the same, healthy Steph for the rest of the postseason," Klay Thompson said after the game. "You know what he does for us. It doesn't need to be explained."  

Now there are no excuses. It's the two best teams in the West -- the two best teams in the NBA -- testing each other at full strength in the conference finals we all deserve. We sure took a circuitous route to get here, but we couldn't have asked for more.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Kerr and Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni are two of his best friends, so he refused to pick a winner, but he did say that we're all in for a treat.

"I think it'll very entertaining," Gentry said. "I think the people are gonna have a great time watching that series. ... I'm looking forward to it. I think it's gonna be a great series."

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