MVP Ladder: Giannis bolsters case with key win in Houston

NBA.com Global on Jan 12, 2019 07:34 AM
MVP Ladder: Giannis bolsters case with key win in Houston
FILE - PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 11: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 11, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t think he’s quite “there yet” when it comes to the Kia MVP chase.

With all due respect, Mr. “Greek Freak,” the basketball world begs to differ.

You are definitely there, sir, based on your performance through the midpoint of this NBA season.

In fact, if there were hardware to hand out from Kia Race to the MVP Ladder HQ at this point, Antetokounmpo would be the recipient (edging out a crowded field that includes the reigning MVP, James Harden).

By the grace of the scheduling gods, the two leading candidates just happened to hook up on Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time), the official halfway point of 2018-19. And they put on a show worthy of MVP mention, with Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks knocking off Harden’s Houson Rockets at Toyota Center.

Harden continued his torrid scoring streak, collecting his league-leading 14th 40-point game of the season. In doing so, he tied Tracy McGrady for the second-longest 30-point streak since the ABA/NBA merger at 14. (Kobe Bryant has the record at 16 straight.)

But Harden didn’t have his most efficient outing (shooting 13-for-30 overall with nine turnovers) as the Bucks took control late.

All Antentokounmpo did was shred the Rockets for 27 points on 8-for-16 shooting to go along with a career-high 21 rebounds, five assists and yet another showcase performance for his MVP resume. (The Bucks pounded the Rockets to the tune of a 70-24 advantage in points in the paint and outscored them 19-2 in fast break points.)

The Bucks have won seven of their past eight games heading into today’s game against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. They’ve stormed the top of the Eastern Conference standings and own a 10-5 record over Western Conference opponents with Antetokounmpo as their undisputed leader and, yes, MVP.

Not there yet, huh?

Yeah, right.

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals

Antetokounmpo seems to be the only person on the planet who isn’t moved by his consistent brilliance this season. If he doesn’t think he’s "there yet," then the rest of the league should brace themselves for whatever comes next. He’s been an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor, but particularly as an offensive catalyst on one of the most improved teams in the league. Doing it without the aid of a reliable long-distance shot is what has made watching Antetokounmpo crush the competition so intriguing. If there was any skepticism about the Bucks being both a legitimate threat in the East and a title contender, that should be vanishing as the second half of the season begins. As long as Antetokounmpo stays focused and healthy (he’s probable Saturday, PHL time, with right quadriceps soreness and a left hip bruise), the possibilities are endless.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 33.9 points, 8.6 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals

Harden has moved into hallowed ground with his current scoring barrage, as his 14 straight games of 30-plus points ties Hall of Famer (and fellow Rockets legend) Tracy McGrady for the second-longest streak since the ABA/NBA merger. Those debates about whether or not Harden is the best offensive player ever aren’t out of line, not when you consider the way he generates offense for himself and his teammates. Harden has a chance to obliterate the record with the Rockets’ friendly upcoming schedule (they play seven of their next 10 games at Toyota Center). The only glitch for Harden as he's hit this nuclear level is the one key flaw in his game is rising, too. He’s averaging 5.7 turnovers this season, which ties his career-high from 2016-17. He's up to 7.3 tpg in his last five games, which he, of course, would point out is world-class nit-picking of a guy playing as well as he is.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.9 points, 5.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Curry shot a rather un-Splash Brother-ish 5-for-19 in Tuesday’s (Wednesday, PHL time) home win against the New York Knicks, which includes an ugly 3-for-12 showing from three-point range. That was a huge come down from his 42-point outburst (including 10 made three-pointers) Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) in a road win against the Sacramento Kings. But as often happens with a rare rough shooting night for the two-time former MVP, Curry displayed a brilliant floor game against the Knicks. He finished with 14 assists (and just one turnover) while grabbing seven rebounds as Klay Thompson went off for 43 points and Kevin Durant dropped 24. Curry’s had just three hiccups since returning from his 11-game, groin-injury induced absence on Dec. 1 (Dec. 2, PHL time). Over his last 18 games, Curry has failed to score at least 20 points only once. What should worry the Chicago Bulls, who visit Oracle today, is what Curry has done in those other two games after he struggled (averaged 32.0 points).

4. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals

MVP voters must decide if the work Leonard did while he was playing outweighs how good the Raptors were all season whether he was in or out of the lineup. As convenient as it might be to try to diminish what Leonard has done by knocking him for the games he missed, you’d be wise to pay attention to just how good he's been when he plays. The Milwaukee Bucks can certainly attest to his impact after what Leonard did to them Saturday (Sunday, PHL time). He logged 30 points and a season-high five steals, playing his trademark lockdown defense, as the Raptors won the battle between the NBA’s top two teams (in the standings). Leonard has such tight control over his own game that he continues to play as efficiently as anyone on this list. He has notched eight games this season where he’s scored 30 or more points while shooting better than 50 percent, including his last two games (30 on 50 percent shooting in the win against the Bucks and 31 points on 61.1 percent shooting in their recent win against the Hawks).

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 19.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.5 steals

Jokic continues to deliver for the Nuggets in every category, doing his crafty best to help keep coach Michael Malone’s team at the top of the Western Conference. He notched his 21st career triple-double (18 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and two blocks) in Thursday’s (Friday, PHL time) win over the LA Clippers. It was his second straight triple-double, coming two days after lighting up the Heat in Miami for 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. In doing so, he tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the second-most career triple-doubles by a center and can now chase Wilt Chamberlain’s big man record of 78. Jokic will probably dig into that deficit considerably the season if he keeps playing the way he has to kick off 2019 (27.2 points on .523 shooting, 12.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.4 steals in his last five games). Jokic and the rest of the Nuggets are focused on team goals first, of course. After missing out on the playoffs on the season's final night in 2017-18, they’re making sure to avoid any such drama this time.

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The next five

6. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

8. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

9. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

And five more: DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers;Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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