LeBron James goes head-to-head with Stephen Curry on Wednesday when the Los Angeles Lakers face the in-form Golden State Warriors in a heavyweight NBA play-in tournament showdown.
The Lakers and the Warriors collide at the Staples Center where a first round playoff series against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns will be on the line for the winners.
The loser faces a further game against either the Memphis Grizzlies or the San Antonio Spurs, with the winner of that game advancing to a first round meeting against the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
While the return to fitness of James and Anthony Davis has left the Lakers confident of mounting a successful defence of their NBA Finals crown, James is looking no further than Wednesday’s date with Curry and the Warriors.
The Warriors head into the play-in tournament on the back of six straight victories after a regular season campaign that as recently as last month was looking increasingly shaky.
A run of seven defeats in eight games left the Warriors four wins below .500 in early April, and in danger of missing out on a place in the play-in tournament altogether.
However Curry’s scintillating, MVP-worthy form helped transform the Warriors’ season, with Steve Kerr’s team stiching together a run of wins that included victories over the top-ranked Utah Jazz, second-seeded Phoenix and Eastern Conference top seeds Philadelphia.
Over the course of the season, Curry averaged a career-best 31.8 points per game and on Sunday clinched the second scoring title of his career.
James, a long-time admirer of Curry who duelled with the Warriors ace in four consecutive NBA Finals between Golden State and Cleveland from 2015-2018, is relishing another meeting.
‘Level of respect’
“For our paths to continue to cross in our careers is pretty unique and pretty cool,” James said. “Our paths have been crossed again.
“It’s always been a level of respect that’s even beyond the game of basketball, the way I feel for Steph.”
James believes that Curry has been the best player in the league this year.
“Just look what he’s done this year,” James said. “Everybody counted him out this year. Everybody saying now that Klay (Thompson) is hurt, can Steph lead a team on his own? Can he carry a team into the postseason? Can he keep a team afloat? He’s done that and more.
“If you’re looking for MVP, if Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at? We get caught up in the record sometimes instead of just saying, ‘Who had the best season that year?’ And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”
While the Warriors head into Wednesday on the back of six straight wins, the Lakers too have hit form at the right time, reeling off five consecutive victories to close the season.
Lengthy injury layoffs to both James and Davis and other key members of the Lakers personnel sent the champions tumbling down the Western Conference standings, leaving them outside the automatic postseason places.
However James believes that in the make-or-break environment of the playoffs, seeding will be irrelevant, despite the fact that no-team ranked lower than sixth seeded Houston in 1995 has ever won the championships.
“I don’t look at our seeding,” James said. “It doesn’t matter. Obviously, we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but the injuries took a toll on our team. I look forward to the challenge.”