The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers play-in matchup will mark the first high-stakes meeting between LeBron James and Stephen Curry since the 2018 Finals. Nature is healing.

“Our paths have been crossed again,” the Lakers star said. “It’s always been a respect, a level of respect that’s even beyond the game of basketball. That’s just the way that I feel for Steph, so that’s cool.”

Mutual admiration may have long existed between James and Curry. However, it hasn’t always been good vibes.

Ahead of the marquee matchup at Staples Center, let’s contextualize the history between the two future Hall of Famers — which ties back to the Akron General Medical Center.

LeBron owns a 9-7 advantage over Steph in the regular season, while the Warriors have won 15 of 22 playoff (Finals) contests and three of four series. The sharpshooter has averaged 25.6 points, 6.3 assists, and 39.7% three-point shooting over those 22 pressurized matchups, while James has put up 33/11.5/9.3. Surprisingly, they’ve scored 30 points in the same game only twice, both in the Finals (Game 6, 2016, and Game 5, 2017).

Their first great bout came in 2014. Prime LeBron and Young Steph alternated buckets on the final three possessions, punctuated by a game-winning triple from James in Oakland.

In the years since, each has produced signature highlights in the company — or at the expense — of each other, often on the game’s grandest stage.

Curry seized the league by storm after the Heatles broke up, suddenly threatening the King’s reign atop the sport.

In 2015, the Warriors guard won MVP and eclipsed James in jersey sales, then capped his meteoric rise by winning the first of four straight Finals between Golden State and Cleveland Cavaliers.

“It just feels good to say we’re the best team in the world with the best player in the world,” Klay Thompson said after the Finals wrapped, pointing to Curry. “Appreciate it, man,” Curry responded.

That Fall, James admitted to being motivated by Steph’s rise.

“I hear the chatter about who is the best player in the league. I see the guys who are barreling down. That locks me in even more.”

(Heading into 2015-16, ESPN and SI ranked James first and Curry fourth in the pre-season player rankings.)

Curry stole James’ thunder and sparked a Ruth-ian paradigm shift in basketball. This development, combined with the simmering on-court rivalry and a seeming 100% Rotten Tomatoes score for Curry from the media and public alike (compared to James’ polarizing popularity post-Decision) frayed the mutual love, at least temporarily.

The friction came to a fore in the Petty Wars. After Curry unanimously won MVP in 2016, James back-handedly congratulated him. That Halloween — months after the greatest triumph of James’ career, which delivered Curry his most devastating defeat — LeBron “trolled” the Dubs via spooky decorations.

A month after Golden State took the Cavs out in the 2017 Finals, Curry was captured mocking James (alongside Kyrie Irving) at Harrison Barnes’ wedding.

In 2019, neither ESPN’s Brian Windhorst — who’s covered LeBron since high school — nor Curry (in 2018) explicitly denied Bill Simmons’ speculation that two superstars weren’t exactly buddy-buddy.

Marcus Thompson, who authored a book on Curry, said this about the mutual respect-turned-disdain, circa 2018:

“There’s this thing there with he and LeBron that’s a little weird…There was a time where LeBron and Steph were like little brother-big brother. LeBron was like a mentor….And then Steph kind of like challenged LeBron’s status. And I think the part that’s odd for Steph is like, ‘Why does that mean there has to be some beef between us?’ He loves LeBron, he respects LeBron. He’s like, ‘Because the outside world is pitting us together, why do you and I have to now have this disdain between us? I thought we were cool…Why do you not like me when all I did was basically respect everything you did and kind of follow the model you carried out?’”

Amidst any beefing, there have always been displays of esteem.

“LeBron was a big fan and supporter of Curry when he starred at Davidson,” Thompson wrote. “He even sat courtside for one of Curry’s games…Curry hit a dagger jumper and acknowledged LeBron with a point as the NBA star…joined the sellout crowd in awe.”

Thompson continues:

“In 2009…Curry participated in a camp hosted by LeBron James and Chris Paul. LeBron gave the camp invites, including James Harden, an encouraging motivational speech. Even when Curry got into the league, LeBron was one of his biggest fans. Remember the ‘how you gon’ give my point guard three hezzies?’ interaction?”

In March of 2016, James defended Curry after disparaging remarks from Dennis Rodman. Two months later, James called Steph and Klay (now his Space Jamco-star) the greatest shooters ever.

That June, Curry rejected the notion that he strove to supplant James atop the sport.

“That’s not what I’m playing for, to be the face of the NBA…or to take LeBron’s throne…I’m trying to chase rings, and that’s all I’m about.”

In February 2017, James hyped Curry after the double-bang vs. OKC.

Later that year, the hoopers’ alliance was thrust into the national spotlight when James called Donald Trump a “bum” on behalf of Curry and the Warriors’ refusal to visit the White House.

According to Thompson, the 2018 All-Star draft gave the two captains a chance to talk “like old friends” for over an hour.

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At the most recent All-Star Game, James raised eyebrows with his overt cheerleading for Curry, leading Windhorst and #NBATwitter to posit that the Lakers forward was recruiting the Warriors icon.

All of that brings us to the present.

Minutes after Golden State-Los Angeles was set, James went out his way to endorse Stephen Curry for MVP.

“Just look at what he’s done this year. I don’t know anything else if you’re looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at? … We get caught up in the records sometimes…instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.” (FWIW, LeBron’s expressed the exact opposite logic after the Warriors star’s second MVP.)

For all his mind games, James’ praise seemed more genuine than cunning, and it was echoed by numerous Lakers.

Curry — who rested his MVP case with 46 points vs. the Memphis Grizzlies — was flattered by the sentiment. More than anything, he’s thankful for their long-running rivalry.

“It’ll be a different scenario, but another chapter in it,” the 2020-21 scoring champ said about the play-in game. “At the end of the day, you expect greatness. That’s the part I’ve enjoyed so much about playing in the Finals against him … it just brings out another level of intensity and excitement and a sense of urgency…because you know how good you have to play to win.”

Stephen Curry has relatively struggled against the Lakers since James took his talents to Los Angeles. He failed to score 20 points in all three games in 2018-19 (one without James). This season, he’s averaged 23 points on 42.3% shooting in three contests (the Lakers easily won two, both sans Davis. Curry led a furious fourth-quarter comeback on Jan 18). Curry did not play Los Angeles in 2019-20.

On paper, the Lakers’ no. 1 defense and stable of excellent wing defenders can disrupt Stephen Curry. In one (play-in) game, though, anything can happen.

“You’re talking about two of the greatest players of all time…both guys still playing at such an elite level,” Steve Kerr said. “Of course, four meetings in the Finals is going to create a rivalry, but there’s obviously tremendous mutual respect between the two of them.”