When the second-seeded Phoenix Suns take on the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, almost everything will revolve around 36-year-olds LeBron James and Chris Paul.
SERIES PREVIEW: Paul looks to lead young Suns past James, Lakers
I mean, when's the last time a playoff series hinged on the play of two players aged over 35?
As I recently outlined, the sustained greatness displayed by Paul in his 16th season is akin to the level of greatness we see from James in Year 18. Not only are James and Paul two of the greatest to ever do it, but they also share a bond that began well before their first-ever meeting as pros and extends much further beyond basketball.
Hop in the time machine back to 2003, where LeBron and CP were ranked first and 12th, respectively, in 247Sports.com's final rankings of high school seniors.
While they saw one another on the AAU circuit throughout their prep career, the world first got its look at James and Paul as they took the floor in Cleveland as McDonald's All-Americans and in Washington, D.C. as participants in the Jordan All-American Classic, which has since been rebranded as the Jordan Brand Classic.
These two go back.
In March 2003, the two were standing out in prep All-American showcases. Three months later, James was hearing his name called as the first overall pick in the NBA Draft, while Paul was arriving on campus at Wake Forest for his freshman year of college hoops.
As LeBron was establishing himself as an All-NBA performer in his sophomore season, Paul was making a name as one of the country's top point guards and a consensus All-American in his sophomore season at Wake.
And he was wearing LeBron's kicks while he did it.
By the end of Paul's second year of school, it was clear it was time for him to re-join his buddy at the highest level. That he did, as he was selected fourth overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the 2005 NBA Draft.
It didn't take long for the two to meet as pros, as LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the Hornets in their season opener of the 2005-06 season, which was Paul's second career game. Just two years after they graced the same floor for the McDonald's All-American Game, they shared their NBA dream together.
And LeBron made a statement.
In a 22-point win, James led the Cavaliers with 31 points, shooting 9-for-16 from the field and 6-for-7 from beyond the arc while Paul recorded a solid stat line of 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 29 minutes of action.
In the 16 years since, the two have met an additional 27 times in the regular season, with James' teams holding a slight advantage with a 15-13 record.
But it's more than that.
James and Paul shared the floor as teammates in 2008 and 2012 to lead the United States to Olympic Gold and, in the past two years, shared the floor as All-Star teammates for the first time in their NBA careers, thanks to the new All-Star draft system, though they would have been teammates without the draft since they're now in the same conference.
Off the floor, the two have gone from two eager teenagers making questionable fashion choices to two of the league's most powerful voices, and their friendship has blossomed in a similar manner.
James was a groomsman at Paul's wedding, and, as Paul confirmed to the LA Times years ago, they're the godfathers of each other's children.
It's a brotherhood.
On the floor, we've come close to seeing the two meet in the postseason, but have fallen just shy each time. In 2018, a potential NBA Finals meeting between the Houston Rockets and Cavaliers was thwarted by the hamstring injury that held Paul out of Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Just last season, Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder were just plays away from meeting the top-seeded Lakers in the West Semis before falling to the Rockets in seven games.
Now, we finally get a chance to see two of the league's fiercest competitors go head-to-head in one of the most intriguing meetings of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The defending champs are far from the typical seventh seed and, as such, are heavily favoured to defeat the Suns, who have enjoyed a resurgence thanks in large part to the fierce leadership of Paul.
In many ways, this meeting completes the circle.
"It's a beautiful thing - our journeys - we've been playing this game at such a high level for a long time," James said of the meeting with Paul following the Lakers' Play-In victory. "I've always rooted for him, for (Dwyane) Wade, for (Carmelo Anthony) to succeed.
"I've had an opportunity to play against Melo in the playoffs a few times, I never got a chance to play against D-Wade in the postseason but we obviously had a great four-year run… but it's gonna be pretty cool just to be on the same floor and compete with one of the most fierce competitors that this game has had … and I look forward to the match up."
We're looking forward to it, too, LeBron.
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