LeBron James and Stephen Curry have played 22 playoff games against one another throughout their Hall of Fame careers. Each of them came in the NBA Finals. On Wednesday, the two will make not only personal history by battling in an earlier round, but also NBA history by participating in the Western Conference's first-ever No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in game, and in a way, the stakes are higher than ever between them.
In a seven-game series, the better team is going to win more often than not. James and Curry know that firsthand. But in a single-game setting? Anything can happen. While the play-in matchup won't have quite the same drama of a Game 7 considering the loser will have another chance to reach the playoffs, there won't be any do-overs for the James-Curry battle. The two most accomplished players of their generation have one chance to outdo the other, and with a postseason berth on the line, they're going to have to make it count.
So with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers set to face off with the three-time champion Golden State Warriors, let's dig a bit further into this matchup and who, aside from James and Curry, will ultimately decide the victor. Here are three things to know as we approach one of the most exciting matchups of the postseason.
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(7) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Golden State Warriors
Date: Wednesday, May 19 | Time: 10 p.m. ET
Location: Staples Center -- Los Angeles, California
TV: ESPN | Live stream: WatchESPN
Odds: GS +190; LAL -220; O/U 218.5 (via William Hill Sportsbook)
1. The center of attention
The first time Golden State tackled the LeBron problem, they solved it by moving Draymond Green to center and playing ultra-small. It's been their go-to high-leverage lineup ever since, and when Steve Kerr takes an opponent seriously enough, as he did the 2018-19 Houston Rockets, he'll skip the warmup minutes and go straight to it to open a series. This isn't a series, and that could force Kerr's hand from the start. That's a move the Warriors have made only 10 times this season, and it's one usually spurred by injury-induced necessity, but just as it has since that 2015 Finals series against Cleveland, the alignment thrived. Lineups featuring Green at center have outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But the Lakers present a unique set of problems no matter who they start. Even their small lineups are enormous. Anthony Davis has faced Golden State in the playoffs twice and averaged 30.5 points on 52.6 percent shooting in those games. Davis at center has been Frank Vogel's answer to Golden State's Death Lineups, a "break glass in case of emergency" option that solves most problems. If the Lakers treat this game with the urgency of a single-elimination setting, Davis will be the starting center, but there is still a compelling argument for sticking with Andre Drummond.
How would Golden State combat that cumulative size? Green has to defend Davis for the Warriors to have any hope of slowing him down defensively, but would a small-ball power forward like Juan Toscano-Anderson stand any chance against Drummond in the post? He might, considering Drummond's poor touch near the basket, but the Lakers would dominate Golden State on the boards, and the Warriors lack the shooting big men needed to draw Drummond away from the basket defensively. Starting Drummond might be Vogel's way of dragging Kerr away from his best lineups. He might need Kevon Looney in the game to pose any sort of interior resistance against the Lakers.
This is going to be the first, and likely most important, chess match between Vogel and Kerr. Who is going to control the terms of engagement? Can the Lakers force the Warriors to play their game? Can Drummond stay on the floor if Curry hunts him in pick-and-roll? Curry and James are the game's best players, but the centers will likely wind up being its most important.
2. Andrew Iguodala?
A grand total of two men have served as primary defenders for teams that have beaten LeBron James in a seven-game series since he won his first championship in 2012. The first is Kawhi Leonard, the greatest perimeter stopper of his generation. The second is Andre Iguodala, the defender who won Finals MVP strictly based on his work against James. Nobody else has stood a chance. Jimmy Butler has made four All-Defensive teams and James still shot over 59 percent in the 2020 NBA Finals. Average defenders have no hope of dethroning King James.
But Andrew Wiggins has been far from average this season. He's been the second-best defender on a top-five defense, forcing opponents to shoot 2.3 percent worse from the field than they do on average, according to NBA.com tracking data. Those numbers are deceptive. Remember, Wiggins doesn't have an elite rim-protecting big man behind him. He has to keep his man in front of him, and he's done so quite well this season. Athletically, he's one of the few defenders in the NBA that can stand up to James. He was a No. 1 overall pick for a reason, after all.
James has made short work of Wiggins in the past. He's 12-2 against his teams and has shot over 57 percent from the field in those matchups. But most of those battles featured a healthy, peak-of-his-powers LeBron. This time? The Warriors are getting a 36-year-old recovering from a high ankle sprain. Wiggins couldn't stop LeBron at his best because almost nobody can. But can he do so against a somewhat compromised James? We'll find out on Wednesday.
3. The Curry stopper
The Warriors don't have anyone with a track record against LeBron. The Lakers have perhaps the NBA's most successful Curry defender. Across 16 games starting in 2013 (essentially encompassing only Curry's prime), he has shot only 41 percent from the field and 32.6 percent on 3-pointers in averaging only 20.1 points per game against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Laker guard has struggled against bigger wings in the past, but he excels at chasing guards around a maze of screens, and with the defensive support he has waiting behind him, he can face-guard Curry comfortably as he has in the past.
But no single Laker will have to defend Curry alone. Expect many of the same tactics Vogel threw at James Harden last year to show up in this game. Golden State just doesn't have the scoring depth to punish the Lakers for throwing delayed doubles or box-and-one zones at Curry. Once the Lakers realized that they didn't have to defend Russell Westbrook on the perimeter last postseason, they'd essentially cracked the Harden code. Golden State offers any number of safety valves for Lakers defenders. Practically any Warrior taking any shot aside from a dunk or a layup is a win compared to a Curry 3-pointer, and Vogel, who has proven to be more than willing to leverage his entire defense to stop a single threat, will no doubt embrace that ideology. If Mychal Mulder or Kent Bazemore can beat the Lakers? Then so be it.