Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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It’s the LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry Battle No One Asked For

After years of facing each other in the N.B.A. finals, James and Curry are competing just to make the playoffs. How did this happen?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

For four straight seasons, whenever Stephen Curry and LeBron James played each other after the regular season, it was in the N.B.A. finals.

This year, when the Los Angeles Lakers, led by James, and the Golden State Warriors, powered by Curry, meet on Wednesday night, it will be a game to get into the playoffs as a lowly No. 7 seed and to try to avoid the embarrassment of missing them altogether — something that would have been unthinkable in the fall.

Both Curry and James were, at different points this season, front-runners for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and showed why they are generational players. Curry, as a 33-year-old who has won the award twice, had one of the best years of his career — even with its high bar — and led the league in scoring. James, 36 and a four-time M.V.P., put together another routine — which, for him, means elite — campaign. On Sunday, James said Curry should win the M.V.P. award, an unlikely prospect given the dominant season Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets had.

It’s a strange wrinkle in a strange season. In the N.B.A., where one player can hold so much sway on the court compared to any individual’s influence in other sports, teams with great players providing historic production typically would be expected to finish higher in the standings. However, Golden State, at 39-33, ended the season with the Western Conference’s eighth-best record, while the defending champion Lakers, were in seventh at 42-30. The loser of Wednesday’s matchup will have to win a play-in game on Thursday against the West’s ninth or 10th seed to get in the playoffs as the eighth seed.

There is a very real possibility that the N.B.A. will have its third straight postseason without having both Curry and James take part — not ideal for a league that has struggled to draw viewers this season.

Some of what brought James and Curry to this point was a matter of bad luck. The injury bug hit Golden State before the season when Klay Thompson, a perennial All-Star and one of the league’s best shooters, tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the fall. He missed his second consecutive regular season, leaving Curry without another reliable scoring option, and sending Coach Steve Kerr scrambling to adapt to a system without consistent playmakers.

There were also production issues. James Wiseman, the team’s heralded No. 2 overall draft pick, who turned 20 in March, often looked lost as Golden State’s starting center. Kelly Oubre Jr., whom the Warriors acquired in an off-season trade to try to replace some of Thompson’s production, started off shooting poorly and was inconsistent. Draymond Green, while remaining a defensive stopper, had difficulty hitting jump shots early on — so much so that opposing teams would barely guard him.

Golden State didn’t win three games in a row until mid-February, roughly halfway through the season.

For the Lakers, the injuries came after the season began — and possibly as a result of a shortened off-season after their title run. Anthony Davis, James’s All-Star running mate, missed two months after straining his right calf. James kept the Lakers afloat, but in that second month, he sprained his right ankle. At that point, the Lakers were 28-14 and still among the best teams in the N.B.A. They began to sink in the standings, going 9-16 over their next 25 games. Signing Andre Drummond in late March did little to stem the tide.

Some of this was also a matter of circumstance. As well as Curry and James played, several other teams had players putting up elite seasons. Until Jokic separated himself from the pack, and multiple top players got injured, this was shaping up to be one of the most competitive M.V.P. races ever.

But having James and Curry face off in the play-in is in some ways a best-case scenario for Commissioner Adam Silver to draw interest in a game that is not quite the playoffs but also not the regular season. This is the second year with a play-in tournament, and the first with this format deciding both the seventh and eighth seeds. The response to the play-in is mixed, inside and outside of the league, with some saying it is unfair and others liking the greater meaning it gave to late-season games.

Golden State finished the season on an 8-1 run, while the Lakers ended theirs with a five-game winning streak.

While a play-in game featuring two marquee stars will undoubtedly have fans more interested, the flip side is the possibility that either Curry or James will end up watching the playoffs from home. Whoever wins on Wednesday will take on the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round. If the loser then beats the winner of a play-in game between the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies and the No. 10 San Antonio Spurs, they’ll go on to face the Utah Jazz in the first round as the eighth seed.

The Lakers and Golden State would be favored to advance against either the Grizzlies or the Spurs. But in a single-game elimination scenario, especially with inconsistent teams, the unexpected can happen.

Asked earlier this month if he thought that the league would enjoy seeing the Lakers play Golden State in the play-in round, Curry sort of nodded. And then paused. And then kept amusingly pausing and nodding. James, for his part, told reporters around the same time that whoever came up with the play-in tournament should be fired.

And let’s not forget, Silver might get the best of both worlds: Golden State and the Lakers could face each other in the Western Conference finals.

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