One NBA star has continuously made shots from almost any distance with his unmatched stroke and vision. Even if teammates and coaches expect Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry to make many of them, they still marvel at his feats.
“It’s literally like a video game,” Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson said. “We’re all on the bench chuckling and laughing like, ‘Man, he’s unreal.’”
One NBA star has continuously dominated with his freakish athleticism and basketball smarts. Even if teammates and coaches expect Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James to dunk, pass and shoot, they still marvel at his feats, too.
“He’s special, man,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “He can flip a switch.”
James and Curry once competed head-to-head for NBA championships. Curry helped the Warriors win three NBA titles at James’ expense in 2015, 2017 and 2018. James helped the Cleveland Cavaliers become the only NBA team in league history to overcome a 3-1 Finals series deficit at Curry’s expense in 2016.
Curry and James cannot compete in the Finals this season since both players reside in the Western Conference. But it seems highly unlikely the Lakers and Warriors would meet in the Western Conference Finals. It appears highly likely, though, that Curry and James will compete against each other for regular-season hardware for the third time in their careers.
It wasn't that long ago that Stephen Curry and LeBron James were competing for NBA championships and regular-season MVP awards. They could be the two frontrunners for the MVP award again this season. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Curry won in 2015 and unanimously in 2016, while James finished in third place. James collected his four regular-season MVPs in Cleveland (2009, 2010) and Miami (2012, 2013) before Curry’s ascension. This season, it appears Curry and James are on a direct collision course to determine first and second place.
Curry has led the NBA this season in both total points (844) and 3-pointers made (140). Although Curry has fulfilled that job description every season during his 12-year NBA career, the Warriors observe that Curry has played his best basketball this season. Curry has routinely attacked the rim, showing he can dominate opponents partly by emulating James’ strength. Curry has mirrored his scoring output this season (29.9 points per game) to what he produced in 2015-16 (29.9). He has also shot nearly as effective from 3-point range this season (42.9%) as he did in 2014-15 (44.3%) and 2015-16 (45.4%). Unlike when he played with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston during those other MVP years, Curry has spent this season navigating other challenges. Thompson suffered a season-ending right Achilles injury before the season started. Rookie center James Wiseman has shown varying degrees of growth and struggles before missing the past eight games with an injured left wrist. And Curry’s other teammates have yet to prove they can consistently supplement his outside shooting.
Hence, Warriors coach Steve Kerr hardly hesitated on whether Curry should be in the running for NBA regular-season MVP.
“I think so. Do you?” Kerr asked a reporter. “How could he not be? He’s other worldly.”
So is James.
He has led his team numerous times this season in assists (23), scoring (18), steals (nine), rebounds (eight) and blocks (once). Although James has displayed his all-around versatility every season during his 18-year NBA career, the Lakers observe James has also played his best basketball this season. He has shot 38.1% from 3-point range on a career-high 6.8 attempts, showing he remains intent to dominate opponents partly by mimicking Curry’s outside touch. James’s scoring output (25.6 points per game) and assists (7.9) nearly match the numbers he produced during his MVP seasons in 2011-12 (27.1 points, 6.2 assists) and 2012-13 (26.8 points, 7.3 assists).
““LeBron does it on both sides of the ball. That’s probably why he’s going to be this year’s MVP."”
His scoring does not reach what he did in 2008-09 (28.4) and 2009-10 (29.7). But James has also averaged 34.7 minutes per game, which is the second lowest of his career behind last season (34.6). Though James has played on a team that won the NBA championship last season, he has still thrived amid Anthony Davis’ inconsistency and a new supporting cast. James will likely assume an even heavier responsibility with Davis sidelined for at least the next three weeks after strained his right calf and aggravating his right Achilles tendinosis.
“LeBron does it on both sides of the ball. That’s probably why he’s going to be this year’s MVP,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s carrying the load offensively, and quarterbacking the defense — the No. 1 defensive in the league — taking these assignments and making plays down the stretch.”
In fairness, other NBA stars have made plays down the stretch this season, too.
““I think so. Do you? How could he not be? He’s other worldly.””
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant has thrived once again as one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers after missing all of last season while rehabbing from his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid remains on pace to have the best season of his five-year NBA career. Same thing with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard could carry them to the playoffs once again. Though it remains too early to declare a definitive winner, it appears likely most of those candidates will fall out of the MVP race.
Durant has to share touches and shots with Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Embiid has not yet proven he can stay healthy. Lillard has a shot, but Curry has played better lately, and the Warriors have the potential to keep improving throughout the season. Jokic has remained consistent with his passing, but he might become overshadowed because he plays in a smaller market.
Curry and James are not just the beneficiaries of playing in a larger market, however. They have the proven body of work.
Stephen Curry has helped the Warriors remain in the chase for a playoff spot and says of his season, "The game speaks for itself." (Photo: The Associated Press)
“The game speaks for itself,” Curry said. “Those narratives make themselves as you go throughout the season. My job is to obviously just be at the level I expect to be. Usually that means you’re at the top at the end of the season. So I really try not to get distracted by that. It kind of taints the moment. If I’m doing my job, I’ll be there at the end of the season.”
Curry initially struggled with doing his job. He shot 42% in the first five games this season en route to a 2-3 start. But those numbers had more to do with Draymond Green’s initial absence, an inconsistent Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kerr becoming conservative with his system. Since then? Curry and Green have complemented each other with their playmaking. Wiggins and Toscano-Anderson have become dependable shooters. Though Kerr has stayed conservative with Curry’s minutes, both Kerr and Curry’s teammates have made different adjustments to ensure better looks for Curry.
The Warriors conceded that Curry benefitted from spending the past year recharging his body after appearing in five consecutive NBA Finals. He played only five games last season because of a fractured left thumb. After finishing last season with the league’s worst record, the Warriors did not participate in the NBA’s bubble. It is not just important that Curry had extended time off the court. It’s important how he spent that time. Beyond staying disciplined with his shooting workouts, the Warriors reported that Curry has gained muscular strength in both his arms and legs. That has made him equipped both to handle suffocating defenses and to attack the basket.
No wonder Curry believes he has played his best.
“100 percent,” Curry said. “I’m feeling confident and strong in rhythm. It’s a good feeling. I want to keep getting better.”
LOST STAR POWER: Opinion: Former Golden State star Kevin Durant shows Warriors what they're missing
ALL-STAR GUIDELINES: Private jet to All-Star game? NBA announces All-Star break guidelines in memo to teams
James has done the same thing despite starting the season less than two months after winning the NBA championship in the bubble. Even at 36 years old, James has not missed a game. He also has logged 40-plus minutes in three consecutive overtimes. James has maintained durability by staying disciplined with his sleeping and dieting, with exception to his wine indulgences.
“I don’t get tired,” James said. “I don’t feel tired. I get my sleep; I get my rest. I have a lot of energy.”
Will this be enough for either James or Curry to win the regular-season MVP award? Not only does that hinge on both players staying healthy and maintaining their consistency but it also depends on their respective teams’ success. The challenging part for voters: James and Curry will have to be evaluated through different circumstances.
The Lakers (21-7) are expected to finish among the best in the Western Conference. So James would have to play well enough to ensure the Lakers stay that way even through Davis' inju. The Warriors (15-13) are not expected to finish that well. But Curry will have to play at least well enough for the Warriors to make the playoffs, most likely as a bottom seed.
“You can make judgements based off of what you value, what you see and number, and wins and losses, and the eye test and all that type of stuff,” Curry said. “It’s kind of what makes the beauty of that award in general. Everyone has a different take on what it means. Sometimes the goal posts do change though. So it’s a matter of doing my job. If that means people want to put me into that conversation or any other guys, that’s amazing. If not, not going to change how I approach the game.”
James has maintained thinking the same way, even if he became irked last season that he received only 16 out of 101 first-place votes while Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo collected 85 first-place votes.
Even at 36-years-old, LeBron James is having one of his better season, which could result in his fifth regular-season MVP award. (Photo: Tony Dejak, AP)
“Regular season MVP has never motivated me,” James said last season. “To be the best to ever play the game has motivated me, and has resulted in me being able to be league MVP a couple times. But I’ve never gone into the season saying ‘Okay, league MVP is what I want to be.’ I’ve gone into the season saying I want to be the MVP of this team. I want to be the best player in the world in how I approach my game every day and how I take care of my body every day.”
So far, James and Curry have done that the best. It seems likely that will stay the case throughout the rest of this season.
Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Source: Read Full Article