LeBron James and Steph Curry are used to meeting in the spring with an NBA championship up for grabs.
The stakes will be so much different when they face each other this time: they will just be vying for a playoff spot.
James and the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers host Curry's eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night in a Western Conference play-in tournament game.
At 33, Curry this season became the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan did it at age 35 in 1998, averaging 32.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 63 games. That included 96 3s in April alone, an NBA record for a single month.
Local news from across Southern California
“I don’t know what else to say about Steph, we’ve been through this all year,” coach Steve Kerr said of the two-time league MVP. “One game to the next it’s very difficult to express just how good he is, what an amazing teammate he is, everything that he brings to the table, leadership, the example that he sets every day and then of course the brilliant shot-making.”
James has said Curry should be this year's MVP.
“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,” he said. “Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”
James, who is averaging 25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 45 games, has played in only four games since originally suffering a sprained right ankle March 20.
This will be the 23rd postseason game between James and Curry. Golden State and Cleveland faced off in four straight NBA Finals from 2015-18, with Cleveland capturing the city’s first NBA championship in 2016 as James and Co. won Game 7 on the Warriors’ home floor.
James nearly averaged a triple double in those games (33 points, 11.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists) while Curry averaged 25.6 points and shot 39.7% from 3-point range.
“It will be a different scenario, another chapter in it, but at the end of the day you expect greatness,” Curry said.
Both teams ended the regular season on winning streaks. The defending NBA champions — who didn't win consecutive games for nearly six weeks — have taken their last five and Golden State has won its last six.
The winner Wednesday will be the seventh seed and can start preparing for a first-round matchup against Phoenix. The loser will face either No. 9 seed Memphis or 10th-seeded San Antonio on Friday for the right to face No. 1 seed Utah.
“We know it’s a one-game thing and can’t afford to lose. We definitely want to get in that seventh seed and get a couple days off to lock in on our opponent and tighten our screws with a healthy team,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said.
The Lakers have won the last two meetings by an average of 28.5 points. They defeated the Warriors 117-91 in Los Angeles on Feb. 28 and then routed them 128-97 in San Francisco on March 15.
Golden State won their first meeting 115-113 on the Lakers' floor on Jan. 18 when it rallied from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit. It was the first time in 284 home games that James and his team took a double-digit lead into the fourth quarter and lost in regulation.
CURRY’S SUPPORTING CAST
Sure, Draymond Green has been as dependable as ever. It’s the other Warriors on the roster who have taken quite a load off Curry when he needed help.
Kerr has pegged Jordan Poole as a likely sixth man next season when Klay Thompson returns from missing a second straight season with an injury. Andrew Wiggins played all but one game in the regular season, resting a sore knee for Friday’s win against New Orleans that didn’t impact the seedings. Golden State had to beat Memphis in Sunday’s regular-season finale to secure the play-in No. 8 spot.
“I’m proud of the way that we’ve led this charge and set a standard of what winning basketball is, but also the understanding that it looks totally different than it used to. But at the end of the day, when games like these come around that we’re prepared for it. Hopefully, that confidence is contagious among the other guys,” Curry said.
Davis is averaging 22 points and 7.4 rebounds in 12 games since returning from a calf injury that sidelined him for two months. He missed one game last week due to a groin injury, but that one was the back half of consecutive games.
The All-Star forward could see the bulk of his time at center, but Andre Drummond is starting to round into form with four straight double-doubles. That could allow Davis to see more time at forward.