LOS ANGELES • When the Los Angeles Lakers drew the Golden State Warriors in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Western Conference play-in tournament, LeBron James had one player on his mind.
He told reporters that Warriors star Stephen Curry was his pick for league Most Valuable Player (MVP) this season, a less-than-conventional choice but high praise ahead of today's game.
Curry won his second NBA scoring title by finishing the season with 32.0 points per game over 63 games. He shot 42.1 per cent from three-point range and added 5.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest.
"I mean, just look at what he's done this year," James, 36, said of Curry, 33. "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," he continued. "We get caught up in the, 'OK, who has the best record', instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year."
Curry's performance this term was a vital return to elite form after he missed most of the last campaign with a broken hand.
Still, Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic is the betting favourite for the award, and Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid believes he has a case, too, despite missing a chunk of the season with a knee injury.
Jokic started all 72 games for Denver and averaged career highs in points (26.4), rebounds (10.8) and assists (8.3) while shooting 56.6 per cent from the floor and 38.8 per cent from three-point range.
The Lakers and Warriors will play today in Los Angeles. The winner will clinch a play-off berth, while the loser will have one more chance on Friday by beating the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs game.
Before the Lakers take to the court, however, the NBA play-in tournament will first tip off this morning, Singapore time, in the East, with the Indiana Pacers up against the Charlotte Hornets, and the Boston Celtics facing the Washington Wizards.
Boston need to raise their level now as they struggled down the stretch with five losses in six games and nine of their last 13. They also lost standout guard Jaylen Brown (wrist) for the rest of the season.
The Pacers won their regular-season finale to secure home-court advantage for the clash against the Hornets. Whether that game in Indianapolis will serve as any form of an edge for the ninth-seeded Pacers remains to be seen.
Indiana, after all, won just 13 of 23 games at home this season. The Pacers also lost two of the three meetings with the 10th-seeded Hornets, including a 114-97 decision at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 2.