Warriors

With Lakers sliding, could Steph, LeBron meet in play-in?

Warriors
Steph Curry, LeBron James

For four straight summers, Steph Curry and LeBron James dueled in June with the greatest NBA prize on the line.

The first was the sign of Curry and the Warriors' arrival at the top. The second was James' crowning achievement, erasing a three-games-to-one deficit to bring Cleveland a title. The final two were one-sided throttlings as Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green squeezed the life out of the Cavs in 2017, and then brushed them aside without breaking a sweat in a four-game sweep in 2018 against James and the Cavs' collection of average Joe role players.

We've gone two years without James and Curry locking horns under the playoff lights, but could the NBA's long night could finally, maybe, possibly come to an end this spring?

Ever since James' Lakers triumphed in the NBA bubble last fall, the league has dreamed of getting the Lakers-Warriors rivalry it has craved for so long. Klay Thompson's Achilles injury derailed those plans at least for a year, and it looked like we'd have to wait another season to watch Curry and James showdown in the playoffs again.

But the Lakers' situation has changed over the past few weeks with James on the bench with a high ankle sprain and Anthony Davis alongside him due to calf strain and Achilles tendinosis. After Thursday's loss to the Boston Celtics, the Lakers now are 6-8 without James and Davis, dropping to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. The Lakers have been carried by their elite defense, but the offense has been borderline unwatchable without James and Davis.

 

With 16 games left, the Lakers now are just two games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and three games ahead of the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks with a brutal schedule upcoming starting Saturday night with the first of a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz. Per Tankathon, the Lakers have the seventh-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.

While Davis could return for short bursts starting this weekend, the Lakers' recent slide has brought the play-in tournament into play, where Curry and the Warriors could be waiting.

Curry has been supernova hot over in April, averaging 39.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from 3-point range.

"It seems like every night, even though I say nothing surprises me, I'm still in awe of the shot-making," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Curry's recent run. "It's just incredible. The level of confidence and skill is just stunning. It's beautiful to watch. It's a man at the peak of his powers with a lifetime of training and work, and not just on his body, but on his mind. This is a guy who is functioning at a level that very few human beings ever function at in their particular field. It's just beautiful to watch."

On the season, the Warriors are 27-21 when Curry plays, which is good for a .563 winning percentage. Assuming Curry suits up for the remainder of the Warriors' games, Golden State should finish a few games over .500 (a .563 clip would put the Warriors at 37-35), and likely in line for the No. 8 seed and a date with the No. 7 seed in the first play-in game.

With James Wiseman out for the season, Curry will have to shoulder even more of a load to make sure the Warriors punch their ticket to the dance. But no one is hotter right now, and no one should scare a shaky title contender more than a one-game date with Curry, with the loser being one loss away from elimination.

Going from the hunted to the hunter is a new reality for Curry and the Warriors. While this season is about laying a foundation to build on next season, Curry wouldn't mind if the Warriors rattled a few cages in the postseason before turning their attention to Thompson's return and a true dynastic rebirth.

"Every season has different challenges and different scenarios that you work through," Curry told reporters when asked if he was enjoying the chase to escape the play-in tournament. "This year is trying to creep as high as we can up the standings down the stretch of the season, make some noise in a playoff series and take it from there. That's the challenge."

RELATED: What we learned about Wiseman in up-and-down rookie season

It would be an appropriate end to this Warriors' season, one in which they have had to grapple with their new reality, seeing Curry and James add another chapter to their rivalry. After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Of course, the Lakers' slide would have to continue for us to get Curry-James V in the play-in game. It might not be likely, but it's in play if the pieces fall into place.

In order for the NBA gods to bestow this gift on us, the Trail Blazers, who have been shaky against above. 500 teams, will have to finish strong against the fourth-toughest schedule in the NBA. Meanwhile, Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, who have the easiest remaining schedule, would have to rack up the wins to also pass the Lakers. However, the Mavericks do play the Lakers twice next week, which could go a long way to determining LA's fate in the standings.

James still is set to be out for another two or three weeks, meaning he likely won't return until the second week of May. Getting Davis back should be enough to keep the Lakers from skidding to a date with Curry and the Warriors if the star big man is 100 percent and can stay on the court.

But what better way for the two superstars to renew their playoff rivalry than with Curry, now the white-hot underdog, looking to deliver a crippling blow to James and the title-favorite Lakers in a one-game showdown.

Curry and James have had some memorable battles with the highest of stakes. James was impossibly outgunned by a Curry-led behemoth in 2017 and 2018.

The tables will have turned if the play-in matchup materializes, with Curry, the NBA's most-lethal force, standing alone against James, Davis and the defending champion Lakers with little to lose.

It's a role Curry would relish, and one the Lakers certainly would like to avoid at all costs.

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