While LeBron James has sounded annoyed by the NBA’s expanded postseason format, Curry appeared elated as his rousing season finale set up a juicy intrastate showdown that will renew a rivalry between the defining stars of the past decade. James’s Lakers will host Curry’s Warriors on Wednesday, with the winner claiming the West’s seventh seed in the playoffs and a first-round date with the Phoenix Suns. The loser won’t be eliminated, but it will need to beat the Grizzlies or the San Antonio Spurs to claim the West’s eighth seed and a first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz.
James and Curry have squared off in plenty of games with big stakes, including four straight NBA Finals matchups from 2015 to 2018 when James was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Head-to-head, James holds a 9-7 edge over Curry in the regular season, including a 2-1 record this season. But Curry is 15-7 against James in the playoffs, with the Warriors winning three titles over James’s Cavaliers.
The Lakers and Warriors took vastly different routes to this week’s clash: Los Angeles won the 2020 title thanks to exceptional play from James and Anthony Davis, but Golden State sputtered to a last-place finish in the West with an injured Curry sidelined for much of the season. This year, the Lakers (42-30) came charging out of the gate before injuries sidelined James and Davis, while the Warriors (39-33) started slow after losing Klay Thompson to a season-ending knee injury before sprinting down the stretch thanks to a red-hot Curry.
“It was a little bleak in February and March, where we didn’t know what type of team we were going to be and we were really struggling to find our identity,” Curry said Sunday. “We’re in a good spot right now. We obviously know there’s a lot of work to do. No matter how the season goes, I’m really proud of the way that we’ve given ourselves a chance to make this season matter.”
The Lakers bring talent and experience advantages into Wednesday’s game, but the Warriors hold the edge in momentum. James has appeared in just four games since suffering a high ankle sprain March 20, and Davis has performed inconsistently in his 13 appearances since straining his calf on Valentine’s Day.
Curry, on the other hand, has taken his game to new heights by averaging 37.1 points since April 1. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Sunday that his star has “never been better,” and James told reporters that Curry deserves to be the MVP.
“Just look what [Curry’s] done this year,” James said. “Everybody counted him out this year. Everybody was saying now that Klay was hurt, can Steph carry a team on his own, carry a team into the postseason, keep a team afloat? He’s done that and more. … If Steph’s not on Golden State’s team, then what are we looking at? We get caught up in who has the best record instead of just saying who had the best season this year. Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”
Lakers vs. Warriors wasn’t firmed up until late Sunday night, when the Portland Trail Blazers sealed the West’s sixth seed with a win over the Denver Nuggets. Indeed, uncertainty reigned across the league throughout its closing weekend. The late-season madness was validation for the NBA’s brain trust, which conceived the play-in tournament as a method for combating tanking and injecting more excitement into the regular season’s dog days.
In the East, the Brooklyn Nets claimed the second seed Sunday by beating the Cavaliers, the New York Knicks claimed the fourth seed by beating the Boston Celtics, the Washington Wizards claimed eighth place by beating the Charlotte Hornets, and the Indiana Pacers claimed ninth place by beating the Toronto Raptors.
In the West, the Jazz claimed the top spot by beating the Sacramento Kings, and the Nuggets claimed the third seed by virtue of the Los Angeles Clippers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, among other seed-deciding results.
This frenzy has set up intriguing games throughout the play-in round, which will feature the seventh- through 10th-place teams in each conference fighting for spots in the 16-team field through an abbreviated tournament. The Celtics (36-36), who recently lost Jaylen Brown to a season-ending injury, must do battle with the Wizards (34-38), who have won 17 of their past 23 games thanks to stellar play from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. Boston will host Washington on Tuesday for the right to face the Nets in the first round.
The Pacers (34-38) will seek their sixth straight postseason appearance Tuesday against LaMelo Ball, the likely rookie of the year, and the Hornets (33-39), who are seeking their first playoff appearance since 2016. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies (38-34), who lost in last year’s play-in round to the Blazers, will hope for better luck against the Spurs (33-39) on Wednesday.
The winner of Pacers/Hornets travels to face the loser of Celtics/Wizards on Thursday for the right to face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. The winner of Grizzlies/Spurs will visit the loser of Lakers/Warriors on Friday for the right to face the Jazz.
Once the six play-in games are completed, the 16-team playoffs will begin Saturday. Although the regular season was marked by choppiness and pandemic-related disruptions, James and Curry are set to headline what should be a compelling week of hoops.
“For our paths to continue to cross in our career, it’s pretty unique and it’s pretty cool,” James said. “It’s always been a level of respect that goes beyond the game of basketball.”