* * *
The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
* * *
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: Tied for No. 1
Season stats: 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
No one has been able to disrupt Antetokounmpo’s flow this season, no matter what tactics they’ve employed to stymie Milwaukee’s anchor and superstar. His ability to counter basically every team’s defensive look bodes well for his effectiveness in the playoffs. The notion that daring him to shoot and preventing him from attacking the rim would somehow force him to abandon his biggest strengths ignored the fact that his “Greek Freak” nickname is a most appropriate moniker. The Miami Heat will get a reminder tonight when they host the Bucks at American Airlines Arena (8 ET, NBA TV). Sunday’s dance with the Philadelphia 76ers (3:30 ET, ABC), however, offers one of the few chances when Antetokounmpo might not be the freakiest physical specimen on the floor. The Sixers’ Joel Embiid made an emphatic return from some post All-Star break load management to drill the Indiana Pacers for 33 points and 12 rebounds last Sunday, then dropped 17 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks on the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday. Antetokounmpo and Embiid will face each other for just the fourth time in their careers.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: Tied for No. 1
Season stats: 36.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals
Harden didn’t seem particularly stressed after the Rockets saw their nine-game win streak come to an end Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors. Harden knows, as we all do, that nothing that happens during the season has any impact on what could happen should the teams meet again come playoff time. In winning the season series 3-1, Harden and Co. have already made their point where the Warriors are concerned. The Rockets are the one team capable of pushing them to the limit, as they did in the 2018 Western Conference finals. Harden knows that the Rockets need a healthy roster with the postseason on the horizon. Losing Chris Paul to a hamstring injury for the final two games of last season’s series vs. the Warriors proved crucial. The more important business now for Harden and the Rockets is continuing their climb in the Western Conference standings.
3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 28.2 points 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals
George and the Thunder are battling for a coveted top-three spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. Who knew that George’s absence with a sore shoulder would impact his team the way it did? But as good as Russell Westbrook has been this season — and he’s been fantastic at times — not having George in the mix those three games wobbled the Thunder. They’ve lost seven of their 12 games since the All-Star break, including a spirit-crunching road loss to the Indiana Pacers last night. In just his second visit to Indiana since he was traded to the Thunder two years ago, George lit his former team up for 36 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals as they raced out to a 19-point lead. But it wasn’t enough to survive the Pacers’ rally and a Wesley Matthews tip-in with 1.8 seconds to play. It was another one of those nights when George and Westbrook did their thing, but the rest of the roster’s offensive production wasn’t up to the task. Saturday’s showdown with the Warriors (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), however, offers a chance for redemption and would be just the spark the Thunder need to crank things up as the playoff positioning continues.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 4
Season stats: 27.9 points, 5.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals
Curry has the luxury playing on a team so star-studded that a pedestrian performance — by his lofty standards, anyway — in a showdown game doesn’t rattle anyone. He shot a rough 8-for-20 (3-for-9 from deep) in Wednesday’s showdown with the Rockets, a game that Kevin Durant (ankle) missed. But when Klay Thompson (30 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals) go nuclear, Curry gets the kind of cover he often provides others. Another statement game awaits, though, in Saturday’s game in Oklahoma City (8:30 ET, ABC). That will feature a hungry Thunder team, an anxious home crowd seeking another shot at the defending champs and the always-ready Russell Westbrook. The Warriors are 1-0 on their current road trip that makes stops in San Antonio (Monday) and Minnesota (Tuesday) before they return to home for three straight games. Seeing Curry and the Warriors eyeball the upcoming schedule is something new, given the way they’ve dominated the West the past five seasons. But they are locked in a race for the top seed and have had to adjust accordingly.
5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week: No. 5
Season stats: 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.4 steals
Jokic’s late-game heroics helped the Nuggets survive Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks Thursday night … and also helped salvage what could have been a rough week, too. Last Saturday, Denver got smashed in the face by Golden State, the team it is chasing for West’s top spot, but has gone 2-0 since then. While Jokic hasn’t scored more than 18 points in four straight games, he’s made up for it with his playmaking/facilitating during that same stretch. But the Nuggets need more from their star big man if they are serious about passing the Warriors, who were more than up for last Saturday’s challenge. Coach Mike Malone has done a splendid job massaging his rotation, keeping Denver locked in and focused on the tasks at hand. Jokic’s constantly stellar effort this season has been perhaps the biggest factor in that success, which might land him an All-NBA first team spot in the months to come.
* * *
The Next Five
6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
And five more: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.