LeBron, Steph, and the Battle for the NBA

June 19, 2016, 8:28 AM

— -- LeBron James lords his body over Stephen Curry, and why not? Physicality is a virtue in basketball, and strength lends weight -- literally -- to a player.

Curry has neither and LeBron thinks he needs a reminder with less than a minute to go in Game 4. An attempted push-off by Steph to free himself for the inbound incites an attempted pancake job by LeBron.

Y ou'll have to go through me.

Then there's the forearm just below Steph's shoulder, and finally the shove just after the whistle sounds for a Warriors timeout.

Curry begins to litigate his case for a foul call to the game official. James weighs in, and Curry responds with something between objection and amusement. LeBron's retort comes with neither smile nor despondency, just a steely glare down at Curry, emphasis on down.

Neither reveals the content of the exchange, and both explain it as a simple intra-office chat. "A competitive conversation," LeBron calls it. "Normal basketball talk," Steph says.

Nor is LeBron overly demonstrative three nights later in Game 5, when he chases down Steph on a break and swats his layup into the front row on the far side of the floor. There's almost an intentionality to his indifference.

But back in Cleveland with the series on the brink of a 3-3 deadlock and LeBron in the flow of his second consecutive 41-point performance, he finally has the footing to get in Steph's face. It's another block, this one at the rim after a mano-a-mano matchup. Whatever LeBron says to Steph after the play, he does it with a look of utter dismissal -- it was just that easy.

"However he wants to celebrate or whatever he wants to do to kind of take in that moment, it is what it is," Curry says after the game. "Obviously, he's pretty athletic, so he's capable of doing that, and we've got to make adjustments."

Damn right I'm pretty athletic. And don't you forget it.

To LeBron, force is acquired through scar tissue, by playing your way to the Finals seven times in ten years. But Steph isn't interested in acknowledging LeBron's achievements, not the blocks and not clawing the Cavs back into the series by sheer will.

"He's made two good plays on the fast break, and obviously tonight on the block, made great defensive plays," Steph says, adding later, "I mean, he's had two great games to keep his team alive. You know, that's what he's supposed to do."

Both personalities have been demure in the press, but the subtweeting between the two biggest stars in the league is getting louder. In LeBron's postgame news conference, when he manages to mention that Steph struggled in the paint despite 38 points in Game 4, and when Steph makes mention that one of LeBron's blocks came after the buzzer, the cold war becomes just a little bit warmer, even if neither one of them will fully activate the rivalry. The first person who acknowledges it loses, but dig in and it's loaded.

There were many times this season when it appeared Steph had won the battle for NBA primacy over LeBron in a landslide. The Warriors' 24-game win streak to start the season set the sports world on fire last fall, as did their quest for a record 73 wins in March and April. While the Cavs made headlines with a coaching change, the Warriors continued their march to revolutionize the game with their joyful, sweet-shooting, pass-happy offense. Steph's shoes and jersey outsold LeBron's.

But LeBron can jaw now because after years of fielding ridicule and abuse from commentators, both amateur and professional, he gets to watch Steph audition for his own generation of haters. Steph's numbers are down here in the Finals, even with a couple of supernova outings. Explaining away being a mere mortal in spring is strictly prohibited when you're MVP -- just ask LeBron's elbow.

The new Curry 2s are the subject of crossover ridicule, eliciting a round of laughter from Jimmy Fallon's audience this past week. "They look like the shoes my Dad would wear when he mows the lawn," Fallon mocked before he suggested the Curry 3s will be socks with sandals. Two billion dollars in sneaker revenue can't buy you style. If you offered LeBron a chance to reclaim the No. 1 slot in apparel sales in exchange for releasing that, he'd hang up the phone.

Now Curry is pelting paying customers in Cleveland with groady mouthpieces and earning an ejection in the season's penultimate game. The tantrum isn't without some cause, but it accentuates his boyishness -- he looks bratty. On the same night, his wife Ayesha accuses the NBA of conspiring against her spouse, he of the unanimous MVP vote.

While Steph's approval ratings sink from lofty honeymoon levels, LeBron's favorables are the highest they've been since his first valiant Finals run in 2007, when he dragged a starting backcourt of Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic by the scruff of their necks past the top-seeded, play-the-right-way Detroit Pistons.

LeBron's current campaign talking points are on message: He was supposed to be a statistic who would fall victim to the hazards of growing up in a single-parent household but defied the odds, just as his head coach Ty Lue did. His postgame musings on the national broadcast and at the podium are earnest. He has spent most of the spring conveying a newfound gratitude for what the game has given him.

The dominance, compelling personal mythology, Steph's unforced errors -- this confluence has pulled LeBron even as Game 7 approaches. In the coming hours, the balance of power in the league will be settled for the near future. Regardless of outcome, Steph's influence over the present stylings of pro basketball won't diminish with a loss. But with a loss on Sunday night, he will become intimate with a condition LeBron knows all too well: Defending your supremacy isn't all it's cracked up to be.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events