LOS ANGELES — Friends since their high school days, former USA Basketball teammates and NBA Players Association leadership members together, LeBron James and Chris Paul are about to meet in the playoffs for the first time in their storied careers.
“It’s going to be comparable to playing against [Rajon] Rondo in a series, playing against Draymond [Green] in a series,” James told reporters on a videoconference call on Friday. “You have those out-of-this-world I.Q. type guys and fierce competitors, at the same time. So it’s the same thing.
“Every time I faced Rondo in the past, I knew I had to be not only on my A-game as far as my game, but also my mind as well. And that’s the same with Draymond, every time you go against those Warriors teams. So I’ve had experiences with those two guys, so that will definitely help me in matching up with CP because I know the competitor and I know the I.Q. of the basketball player that he is.”
Paul’s Phoenix Suns, the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed, will host James and the No. 7-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the first round on Sunday (3:30 ET, ABC), pitting the old pals — two parts of the so-called “Banana Boat Brotherhood,” which also features Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony — as foes.
Paul, who entered the league two years after James as the No. 4 pick in 2005, led the Suns to the second-best record in the league this season, his first with the franchise.
James and Paul, both 36, have been orbiting each other’s basketball worlds for nearly a quarter century. In 1997, James’ AAU team, the ABA Shooting Stars from Akron, Ohio, and Paul’s team, the Carolina Hornets from Winston-Salem, competed in the same Boys’ 12 & Under National Championship tournament. They later played in the same All-American games — both the McDonald’s and Michael Jordan branded ones — and became fixtures in the NBA.
Many of their achievements match up. Both were named Rookie of the Year; both won two Olympic gold medals; both have made the All-Star Game more than 10 times; both served on the NBPA’s leadership committee, with Paul as president and James as vice president; and both are among the game’s all-time statistical leaders, with James third in career points and Paul fifth in career assists.
But there is one major gap between them.
James has four rings. Paul has none. Not that James uses that as fodder against his friend.
“I think you know me by now,” James said. “I think that’s not in my [character] traits. I don’t really talk about my accolades, or what I’ve been able to do. And our friendship is beyond that. So I’m not one of those guys to talk about what I have. I think that’s very shallow. That’s beneath me, personally. So I don’t get involved in that.”
What Paul has over James and the defending champions this series is home-court advantage. However, even that comes with a hitch. L.A. opened as a -300 favorite to win the series, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, making it the first time in at least the past 30 years that a 7-seed is favored over a 2-seed, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Not that that bothers the Suns.
“We all hear it,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said on Friday. “Ultimately you got to get out there and compete for 48 minutes, and that’s what we plan to do. Did anybody think we were going to win 51 games this year? In a shortened season? Don’t think so. So why would we listen to those people now?”
Williams was asked if the Suns, appearing in the postseason for the first time in 11 years, were “bitter” that their first opponent would be the James-led Lakers, and he pushed against that, too.
“Our guys aren’t bitter,” Williams said. “We’re looking forward to competing against the Lakers. That’s how we look at it. We’re not upset or feel like anybody’s done something to our Cheerios. We have to go play the Lakers. Everything you want is on the other side of hard. Right now the Lakers are our hard.”
And the Lakers have had a hard path to get to this point, dealing with injuries to James and Anthony Davis that dropped them in the standings and set up the series with the Suns.
James, who played 35 minutes in Wednesday’s play-in win over the Golden State Warriors, said his right ankle will be “ready to go” for Game 1.
Davis, who opened up playoff runs twice as the lower-seeded team when he played for New Orleans, is not only healthy, he is hunting for a win.
“You’ve got to steal Game 1,” Davis said. “You’ve got to steal home-court advantage. … I think if you [win] on the road it puts a lot more pressure on them, the higher seed. … Our mindset is to take Game 1 and take that home-court advantage, and it could benefit us in the end.”