When the NBA first introduced the play-in tournament, the idea was to further incentivize the normally humdrum final days of the regular season by giving more teams something to play for. That vision was realized on Sunday’s frenetic final day that saw all 30 teams in action and implications up and down the standings.
But not even the rosiest optimist in the NBA’s league office could have expected the treat that awaits on Wednesday night: an improbable high-stakes clash between LeBron James and Stephen Curry as the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers host the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in a Western Conference play-in game.
The blockbuster showdown will mark the 23rd postseason meeting between two era-defining superstars with six Most Valuable Player awards and seven NBA titles between them. The first 22 of those came when the Warriors and Cavaliers met in four straight NBA finals from 2015 through 2018, with Golden State winning three and Cleveland rallying from a historic deficit to capture the city’s first NBA championship in 2016. James nearly averaged a triple double in those games – 33.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists – while Curry’s teams own the head-to-head matchup by a decisive 15-7 margin.
“You’re talking about two of the greatest players of all time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters on Sunday. “Both guys are still playing at such an elite level. And of course, four meetings in the finals is going to create a rivalry. But there’s obviously tremendous mutual respect between the two of them.”
The teams have taken divergent paths to Wednesday’s showdown. The Warriors appeared cooked after five-time All-Star Klay Thompson’s season-ending achilles injury during a pick-up game in the preseason, but rallied behind the brilliant play of the 33-year-old Curry, who averaged 32.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 63 games to become the oldest NBA scoring champion since Michael Jordan in 1998.
Curry’s stratospheric level down the stretch, which included an NBA-record 96 three-pointers in April alone, overcame Golden State’s sometimes-glaring personnel shortcomings and managed to re-open an MVP case that previously appeared done and dusted for Denver’s Nikola Jokić.
“We’re playing versus, in my opinion, the MVP of our league this year in Steph,” James said on Sunday. “We got to be prepared for everything they have. They have championship DNA.”
The Lakers, who cruised to the team’s record-tying 17th title in October, ran out to a 28-14 start but have been equally undone by injuries, with James, Anthony Davis and Dennis Schröder all missing significant time during a stretch that saw them drop 16 of 25 contests. They remain the second betting favorite with most oddsmakers to win the title and defend their championship – but they will need to officially reach the playoffs first.
James, 36, averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 45 games, but has played in only four games while nursing a high ankle sprain first suffered in March.
“We’re getting healthy at the right time,” Lakers veteran Jared Dudley told reporters. “And nobody wants to see a healthy Lakers team.”
Both Los Angeles and Golden State needed late-season pushes to even reach the play-in round: The Warriors come into Wednesday’s game on a six-game win streak while the Lakers have taken five on the trot after going nearly six weeks without back-to-back victories.
Wednesday’s matchup won’t be freighted the same drama as a win-or-go-home Game 7 – the loser will stay alive and meet either ninth-seeded Memphis or 10th-seeded San Antonio on Friday night for the right to face top-seeded Utah in the Western Conference first round – but a one-off between two of the sport’s most decorated stars in a novel format remains a mouth-watering prospect for basketball fans before the playoffs begin in earnest at the weekend. Even if the potential of a postseason without either James or Curry in the fold will no doubt wear the nerves of the NBA brass.
“It’ll be a different scenario, but another chapter in it,” Curry said. “At the end of the day, you expect greatness. That’s the part I’ve enjoyed so much about playing in the finals against him … those games that matter, it just brings out another level of intensity and excitement and a sense of urgency about it, because you know how good you have to play to win games like that.”