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LeBron James and Stephen Curry renew rivalry: ‘I don’t think they ever hated each other’

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Stephen Curry collected three NBA championships at LeBron James’ expense. James won an NBA title that disrupted Curry’s record-breaking season. And they both produced on-court excellence as completely different generational talents that will stay linked in NBA history.

“It’s the best rivalry of this generation,” Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.

James secured two NBA titles with the Miami Heat (2012, 2013) before Curry ever tasted championship success. But then Curry and James sought to grab hardware before the other could while the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in four consecutive NBA Finals (2015-2019). James, then with the Los Angeles Lakers, eliminated the Warriors in the 2021 play-in tournament with a game-winning 3-pointer. Last season, Curry tied James’ ring count (four) with a Finals win over the Boston Celtics, while the Lakers missed the playoffs entirely.

And this season, Curry and James will meet again when the sixth-seeded Warriors square off against the No. 7 Lakers in the second round of the NBA playoffs, beginning with Game 1 on Tuesday in San Francisco (10 pm ET, TNT).

No wonder Warriors coach Steve Kerr predicted “there will be a documentary on the rivalry.” Expect NBA fans to consume that project the same way they did with the documentaries on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls (“The Last Dance”) and on Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (“Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”).  Presuming Kerr’s prediction comes true, the on-court material should be compelling. Just cue up countless footage of Curry draining 3s or of James showcasing his superior athleticism and brute strength. Do not expect Curry nor James to dish insults about each other, however, or tell any stories about any behind-the-scenes conflicts.

“I don’t think they ever hated each other,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser told Sportsnaut. “There has always been a respectful competition between the two of them. But I always feel like there has been a high level of respect between the two for each other.”

Consider how Curry and James reacted toward facing each other in the playoffs for the first time outside of an NBA Finals setting. Both viewed the matchup as a validation of their longevity.

In his 20th NBA season, a 38-year-old James has averaged 28.9 points on a 50 percent clip along with 8.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. This season, James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. And James’ season averages in the 2022-23 campaign actually eclipse his career averages in points (27.2) and rebounds per game (7.5).

“It’s amazing because you’re still in the fight. It’s better than the alternative with being on the outside looking in,” Curry said. “It is special to know that from the first series we played him in Cleveland in the 14′-15′ season to now. We’re blessed to be playing at this level still. We’re excited about a new chapter with two teams trying to keep their season alive and chase a championship.”

In his 14th season, a 35-year-old Curry has averaged 29.4 points while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from 3-point range along with 6.3 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game. Curry scored a record-setting 50 points in the Warriors’ Game 7 win over Sacramento on Sunday. And Curry’s season averages in 2022-’23 also eclipse his career averages in points per game (24.6), shooting percentage (47.5 percent) and rebounds per contest (4.7), while mirroring his career averages in 3-point shooting (42.8 percent) and assists per game (6.5).

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Steph and everything he’s been able to accomplish, not only on the floor but also off the floor, too,” James said. “It’s just great to have people like that in this league to set an example for the generation to come.”

This doesn’t mean the documentary would detail two rivals having a close friendship. Curry’s personal trainer, Brandon Payne, observed their dynamic features “tension-filled admiration.”

Initially, Curry considered James an idol when he attended his camps and when James watched his college games at Davidson as an established NBA star. That warmth chilled once they competed against other. Curry and James jawed at each other in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals after Curry griped to officials about not calling a foul on James after he defended him physically. Toward the end of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, Curry and James exchanged words after he spiked Curry’s layup attempt in the final minute.

Those two testy moments represented small snapshots of a rivalry that largely focused otherwise on other areas. That included each players’ quest to perfect their own craft, to elevate their teammates and to help their team win an NBA title. Curry has James to thank for indirectly helping him improve in those areas.

“In order to compete with him or beat him, you have to take yourself to another level,” Payne told Sportsnaut. “That challenge of playing as an individual and leading the rest of your team to beat a player and a team led by LeBron James is certainly a challenge. It’s a mental challenge. It’s a physical challenge. It’s a challenge of preparation. It’s a challenge about being detailed about your process because LeBron is incredibly detailed about his preparation process.”

How Stephen Curry and LeBron James brought out the best in each other

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Not only did LeBron James challenge Curry and the Warriors with his 6-foot-89, 250-pound frame. He knew how to play at all five positions. He knew when to score and when to pass. He knew the Warriors’ schemes and plays ahead of time and had strong enough of a photographic memory to recite them years later.  Warriors forward Andre Iguodala may have won 2015 Finals MVP for excelling as the primary defender on James, who shot 39.8 percent during the Finals. Nonetheless, James still averaged 35.8 points and 8.8 assists per game.

“LeBron is a very smart and strategic player. I don’t think Steph was as strategic,” Fraser said. “LeBron made everything hard for opponents, including Steph. He’s almost like the comic book superhero that you had to beat. He was the toughest of all the villians you faced.”

James might consider Curry as his toughest villain, too. Who else can make any shot from almost any distance? Who else attracts so much on-court gravity? Who else makes himself more dangerous with how he attacks the basket and distributes to others?

“Just two of the most competitive players that have ever played this game,” James said of himself and Curry. “We want to etch our names in the history books as much as we can, but by playing and doing it our own way.”

James seemingly became the toughest when he guided the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA championship. The Warriors might still wonder about a different outcome had Draymond Green not been suspended in Game 5 for exceeding the league’s flagrant foul limit in Game 4. Still, that absence would have been irrelevant had James not averaged 29.7 points on a 49.4 percent clip, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists. He also set up Kyrie Irving for a key 3 pointer over Curry in the final minute of Game 7.

The Warriors responded to that defeat by acquiring Durant the following offseason. That may explain why the Warriors cruised against Cleveland in 2017 (4-1) and 2018 (4-0). After all, Durant won Finals MVP both in 2017 (35.2 points on 55.6 percent, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists) and in 2018 (28.8 points on 52.6 percent, 10.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists). That made James’ stellar play almost an afterthought in 2017 (33.6 points on 56.4 percent, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists) and in 2018 (34 points on 52.7 percent, 10.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists).

Still, the Warriors also excelled during those consecutive Finals runs because of Curry’s strong play, improved health and collaborative leadership style to ensure Durant and all of his other teammates mutually benefitted from each other. James has won four NBA titles with three different teams by relying on his talent and surrounding himself with other key stars amid both functional and dysfunctional organizations. Curry won all four of his NBA titles with Golden State by relying on his talent, setting the tone for the organization’s team-oriented culture and benefitting from coaching and front office stability. Curry still posted stellar numbers against Cleveland without Durant in 2015 (26 points on 44.3 percent, 6.3 assists) and 2016 (22.6 points on 40.3 percent, 3.3 assists) compared to with Durant in 2017 (26.8 points on 44 percent, 9.4 assists) and 2018 (27.5 points on 40.2 percent, 6.8 assists).

“He still went about his work individually the same way. But I think he changed how he played among everyone. He really wanted Kevin to feel comfortable,” Fraser said of Curry. “I don’t want to say he catered to him, but he understood Kevin’s talent and wanted to bring that out. He tried to accommodate and tried to help both Kevin and Klay [Thompson] to be great, while he can still try to be great. He lessened his role as a scorer for a while. The whole group found it was hard to stop when you play for others. So they all started ended up playing the way they know how to play, and it started to work together.”

The end of a Finals era

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Those head-to-head Finals matchups eventually ended.

James signed with the Lakers as a free agent in the 2018 offseason. After the Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals amid season-ending injuries to Durant (right Achilles) and Thompson (ACL in left knee), Durant left for Brooklyn as a free agent. With Curry playing only one more regular-season game after breaking his left hand four games into the 2019-20 season, the Warriors eventually ended with the NBA’s worst record. But less than a year after the Lakers won the 2020 NBA title in a campus bubble during the first year of the pandemic, the Lakers hosted the Warriors for a play-in tournament before limited fans in LA.

Nonetheless, Kerr sensed that matchup still “felt like a Finals game” because James and Curry squared off once again. Shortly after Green poked James in the eye, he made a go-ahead 34-foot 3-pointer over Curry with 58.2 seconds left for a 103-100 win. A year later, Curry helped the Warriors win the NBA title over Boston while earning his first Finals MVP trophy.  

“They know the other guy is also one of the very best in the game,” Kerr said. “When you are the best, there is no bigger challenge than beating the best.”

Still, those around Curry dismiss whether he cares about collecting more NBA titles and individual accomplishments than James.

“It’s always Stephen Curry on Monday vs. Stephen Curry on Sunday,” Payne said. “We’re just trying to get better. I think at this point, he has a really strong understanding that these sort of individual accolades come through team success. That puts championships at the absolute pinnacle and at the top of your focus.”

That won’t stop James and Curry fans from viewing the upcoming Warriors-Lakers playoff matchup through that lens, though. Both James and Curry have a chance to win their fifth NBA championship. James has become the NBA’s all-time playoff leader in points (7,764) through 272 games, while Curry ranks 13th with 3,806 points through 141 contests.

Whenever James and Curry end their careers, though, perhaps they will be more remembered for how they impacted the game than how much hardware they stored in their trophy cases.

“They can both be viewed as all-time greats standing on their own merits without necessarily comparing the two of them,” Payne said. “LeBron has had a very cerebral approach to how he plays and how he involves his teammates and being physically dominant. He’s added so much skill over the years. His shot has continuously gotten better. You have to look at how he’s refined and molded his game.”

And Curry?

“It’s almost the opposite,” Payne said. “Steph started off primarily being a guy that was a perimeter-oriented player. Then he got bigger and stronger. He has gotten more intelligent on how he reads defenses and controls defenders. He’s become a huge threat with driving and finishing around the basket. He’s also a big threat with getting the ball to the paint and getting out to the 3-point line to catch-and-shoot. They are both so great at what they do, and they’ve done it in different ways.”

That should make for a compelling Lakers-Warriors playoff series. That should make for a compelling documentary years later on this generation’s greatest NBA rivalry.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

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