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

It wasn’t imagined to be like this.

For 4 straight seasons, at any time when Stephen Curry and LeBron James performed one another after the common season, it was in the N.B.A. finals.

This 12 months, when the Los Angeles Lakers, led by James, and the Golden State Warriors, powered by Curry, meet on Wednesday night time, it will likely be a game to get into the playoffs as a lowly No. 7 seed and to attempt to keep away from the embarrassment of lacking them altogether — one thing that may have been unthinkable in the fall.

Both Curry and James have been, at completely different factors this season, front-runners for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and confirmed why they’re generational gamers. Curry, as a 33-year-old who has gained the award twice, had one among the finest years of his profession — even with its excessive bar — and led the league in scoring. James, 36 and a four-time M.V.P., put collectively one other routine — which, for him, means elite — marketing campaign. On Sunday, James stated Curry ought to win the M.V.P. award, an unlikely prospect given the dominant season Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets had.

It’s a wierd wrinkle in a wierd season. In the N.B.A., the place one participant can maintain a lot sway on the courtroom in comparison with any particular person’s affect in different sports activities, groups with nice gamers offering historic manufacturing sometimes can be anticipated to complete greater in the standings. However, Golden State, at 39-33, ended the season with the Western Conference’s eighth-best report, whereas the defending champion Lakers, have been in seventh at 42-30. The loser of Wednesday’s matchup should win a play-in game on Thursday in opposition to the West’s ninth or 10th seed to get in the playoffs as the eighth seed.

There is a really actual risk that the N.B.A. may have its third straight postseason with out having each Curry and James participate — not ultimate for a league that has struggled to attract viewers this season.

Some of what introduced James and Curry thus far was a matter of dangerous luck. The damage bug hit Golden State earlier than the season when Klay Thompson, a perennial All-Star and one among the league’s finest shooters, tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the fall. He missed his second consecutive common season, leaving Curry with out one other dependable scoring choice, and sending Coach Steve Kerr scrambling to adapt to a system with out constant playmakers.

There have been additionally manufacturing points. James Wiseman, the group’s heralded No. 2 general draft decide, who turned 20 in March, typically seemed misplaced as Golden State’s beginning heart. Kelly Oubre Jr., whom the Warriors acquired in an low season commerce to attempt to change a few of Thompson’s manufacturing, began off taking pictures poorly and was inconsistent. Draymond Green, whereas remaining a defensive stopper, had problem hitting bounce pictures early on — a lot in order that opposing groups would barely guard him.

Golden State didn’t win three video games in a row till mid-February, roughly midway via the season.

For the Lakers, the accidents got here after the season started — and presumably because of a shortened low season after their title run. Anthony Davis, James’s All-Star operating mate, missed two months after straining his proper calf. James stored the Lakers afloat, however in that second month, he sprained his right ankle. At that time, the Lakers have been 28-14 and nonetheless among the best teams in the N.B.A. They started to sink in the standings, going 9-16 over their subsequent 25 video games. Signing Andre Drummond in late March did little to stem the tide.

Some of this was additionally a matter of circumstance. As nicely as Curry and James performed, a number of different groups had gamers placing up elite seasons. Until Jokic separated himself from the pack, and a number of prime gamers bought injured, this was shaping as much as be one among the best M.V.P. races ever.

But having James and Curry face off in the play-in is in some methods a best-case situation for Commissioner Adam Silver to attract curiosity in a game that isn’t fairly the playoffs but additionally not the common season. This is the second 12 months with a play-in event, and the first with this format deciding each the seventh and eighth seeds. The response to the play-in is combined, inside and out of doors of the league, with some saying it is unfair and others liking the better which means it gave to late-season video games.

Golden State completed the season on an 8-1 run, whereas the Lakers ended theirs with a five-game profitable streak.

While a play-in game that includes two marquee stars will undoubtedly have followers extra , the flip aspect is the risk that both Curry or James will find yourself watching the playoffs from house. Whoever wins on Wednesday will tackle the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first spherical. 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 spherical as the eighth seed.

The Lakers and Golden State can be favored to advance in opposition to both the Grizzlies or the Spurs. But in a single-game elimination situation, particularly with inconsistent groups, the surprising can occur.

Asked earlier this month if he thought that the league would take pleasure in seeing the Lakers play Golden State in the play-in spherical, Curry kind of nodded. And then paused. And then stored amusingly pausing and nodding. James, for his half, advised reporters round the similar time that whoever got here up with the play-in tournament should be fired.

And let’s not overlook, Silver may get the better of each worlds: Golden State and the Lakers may face one another in the Western Conference finals.

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