Their careers have intersected so many times with everyone’s eyes aimed just at them — LeBron James and Stephen Curry at the center of the NBA universe for some of the biggest games of the last decade.
“Our paths have been crossed again,” James said Sunday, after learning the Lakers and Golden State Warriors would meet in the play-in tournament Wednesday at Staples Center, with the West’s No. 7 playoff seed on the line.
“It’s always been a respect, a level of respect that’s even beyond the game of basketball. That’s just the way that I feel for Steph, so that’s cool. I mean, just look at what he’s done this year.”
Curry was the NBA’s top scorer, averaging 32 points to outpace Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid. He shot better than 40% from three-point range, the third time he’s averaged at least 10 attempts per game and made at least 42% — no one in history had done that.
The Warriors won 39 games, including their last six, despite losing Klay Thompson to another season-ending injury before the season, not getting consistent play from No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman and playing without forward Kelly Oubre for the last three weeks.
Those last six wins came at home, Curry scoring 46 and the Warriors holding off Memphis on Sunday to earn the No. 8 spot in the West while the Lakers fell to seventh.
“I don’t know anything else if you’re looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at? We get caught up in the records sometimes,” James said. “We get caught up in the ‘OK, who has the best record’ instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”
Curry scored 40 or more points 11 times, his team going 9-2 in those games. He had 62 against Portland, 53 against Denver and 49 against Philadelphia, three wins that proved he can get hot enough to single-handedly carry these Warriors past a playoff-caliber opponent.
“He creates problems. For every team,” Anthony Davis said. “His ability to shoot the basketball, get in the paint, make his team better, find guys is a challenge for everyone. So that’s going to be our focus. He’s the head of the snake.
“If we can limit him — his three-point attempts, his free-throw attempts — then we have a high chance of winning.”
The Lakers won two of three against the Warriors this season and held Curry to an average of 23 points. But it’s about more than Curry, especially in a one-game showdown that has the Lakers in a bit of uncharted territory. While James has fought the Warriors in elimination games, they’ve never been the only game.
“You cannot replicate a Game 7, especially with the first game,” James said. “I’ve always treated Game 1s like a feel-out game, but, obviously, you don’t have that luxury in the play-in game. So, we just gotta play to the best of our ability. We got to play Lakers basketball.”
The Lakers have a strong defensive backcourt, with Dennis Schröder, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all logical choices to guard Curry. But like with any great player, team defense will be most crucial.
The Lakers also have to be sharp offensively because Golden State has won games with an underappreciated defense that finished fifth in efficiency, with forwards Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins helping bolster Curry’s offensive genius.
“Obviously they have a championship pedigree with Draymond and Steph and coach [Steve] Kerr. Really impressed with their defensive performance throughout the course of this year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “They’ve got a top-five defense and obviously Steph is playing out of this world. So, it’s gonna be a big challenge but one our guys are up to it.”