Just to make things interesting, the Golden State Warriors told Stephen Curry and his sprained left ankle to take Tuesday night off, and sure enough, interesting it was.
The greatest show in sports won an overtime thriller over the visiting Atlanta Hawks, 109-105, thus entertaining a national audience on NBA TV with another must-see episode of San Francisco Bay Watch.
Even if Curry returns Thursday night, the Thunder figures to present a challenge in a TNT rematch of Saturday night’s epic, overtime Warriors victory. But what about the game after that, a visit to the Lakers on Sunday on ABC?
To make things competitive perhaps the 54-5 Warriors should play blindfolded, or at least agree to count their baskets from outside the arc as mere two-pointers.
Whatever. Fun is being had in 2016, by both the Warriors and basketball fans, and that is all that matters.
Speaking of fun, we checked in after Tuesday night’s victory with a guy on the front lines of the frenzy, ESPN’s Marc Stein, whose Twitter profile lists his location as “all over the NBA map” but whose universe now centers on Oakland.
Stein lives in the Dallas area but has been assigned to follow the Warriors hither and yon to the tune of about 20 games so far and many more to come as they attempt to set an NBA record with 73 regular-season victories — and beyond.
“I suspect the playoffs will be just like last season’s playoffs,” he wrote in an email interview, “which means the poor Warriors are going to have to see this face for radio every day. I was with them for a full two months from April through June last spring.”
Stein said his reporting connection to the Warriors began early last season, when they won 16 in a row. He was asked to follow them in part because he had gotten to know Curry and Klay Thompson the previous summer covering Team USA’s tour of Spain and the FIBA World Cup.
“It felt in a lot of ways like a natural continuation of that role,” he said. “And the Warriors quickly got so good, really from the start last season, that they increasingly demanded much more frequent coverage from ‘SportsCenter.’ And so a beat was born.”
The most difficult thing about the role is time spent away from his family, which includes “an amazing wife and two brilliant boys [Alex, 12, and Aaron, 9] who understand that this is my unpredictable profession and what I’ve always done. So they grudgingly accept it.”
The nature of the assignment helps.
“I get out of jail ever so slightly now that my little man, like most 9-year-olds nationwide, has become such a Steph fan,” Stein said. “He watches as many games as he can and then I revel in his tactical analysis when we discuss it.”
Stein called Curry’s accessibility and cooperation “off the charts. There are no words, really. He has been generous to ESPN in the extreme with his time. And he’s as patient and comfortable in the frenzy he creates as anyone I’ve ever seen in nearly 25 years covering this league.
“I liken him to Magic Johnson. I was in my infancy as a traveling NBA beat writer with the Los Angeles Daily News when Magic made his comeback with the Lakers for the second half of the 1995-96 season and Magic went out of his way to tell Scott Howard-Cooper [then the Lakers’ writer for the Los Angeles Times] and I that he’d always make sure we would be a priority on the road even though there would be loads of rival reporters around.
“That’s how Steph treats all the regulars on this beat, too, which everyone greatly appreciates. Steph, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Steve Kerr, Luke Walton . . . I could go on and on. It’s just a very open group.
“You don’t see much openness like this in modern sport any more. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Ridder, Dan Martinez and the Warriors’ PR staff, as anyone who covers this league will tell you, play a big part in making the environment as media-friendly as it is.”
For all of the work and time commitment, Stein said the assignment has been as much fun as outsiders assume it is.
“It is twofold fun for me, not just because covering this team is refreshing because they’re having so much fun, but also because I’m doing it largely in a TV role,” he said. “There are naturally digital and radio components to my Warriors coverage, too, but this is separate from my primary role as a reporter covering the whole league, and the first time I’ve been a ‘SportsCenter’ version of a beat writer. So it’s completely new ground for me.
“And if I ever need a reminder about how lucky I am, it happens when I talk to friends from high school who aren’t in the business but who have kids in the same age range as mine. Those kids invariably all love Steph, so you hear a lot ‘you have the greatest gig in the world’ talk. They’re not wrong, either.”
Not everyone is entirely on board the Warriors’ bandwagon. Take 77-year-old Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who caused a stir last week when he suggested that in his day, Curry would not have been allowed to get away with consistently bombing from long range.
“When I played years ago, if you shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you,” Robertson told ESPN Radio. “I’m going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don’t do that.
“These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I’m concerned.”
Firstly, let’s cut “The Big O” some slack here, because old people have been lamenting that things were better in their younger days since the invention of people — especially athletes, musicians and politicians.
That being said . . . Hello, O! The year Robertson famously averaged a triple-double in 1961-62, NBA defenses were so tenacious that its teams averaged 118.8 points per game — an all-time high — even without three-point goals.
This season, the Warriors lead the NBA with an average of 115.3 points, and the league average is 102.3 — the highest since 1992-93 but still modest compared to Robertson’s chuck-it-up day.
As you might expect, the Warriors have been a television ratings hit, with last Saturday’s victory over the Thunder on ABC averaging 5.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched, regular-season, non-Christmas NBA game since 2013.
At the moment, nine of their 23 remaining games are scheduled for national television — two on ABC, two on ESPN, three on TNT and two on NBA TV.
It will be up to the NBA to referee if — actually, when — ESPN and TNT start lobbying to add games in the final weeks if the Warriors are threatening the 1995-96 Bulls’ record of 72 regular-season victories.
Their 79th game, against the Spurs, is scheduled for TNT on April 7. Game 80, in Memphis against the Grizzlies, is not currently on the national TV slate. Game 81, at the Spurs on April 10, is on NBA TV’s schedule.
The final game of the regular season, home to the Grizzlies on April 13, has not been claimed for national television. If it ends up giving the Warriors a chance to tie or beat the Bulls, look for the NBA to find a way to put it on a TV near you.