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Curry, Harden ... you've got some more MVP company

Harden takes over top spot as LeBron, Westbrook turn up the heat

POSTED: Feb 27, 2015 9:22 AM ET

By Sekou Smith

BY Sekou Smith

NBA.com

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MVP Race

Sekou Smith joins the Game Time crew to discuss the current MVP race.

April 15, 2015. Circle the date on the calendar.

That is the finish line for the NBA's regular season. And it will also serve as the tape for the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder this season.

Then, and perhaps only then, will we have a clear-cut winner in this race that looked like a two-man deal earlier this season, only to morph into a legitimate four-man race the past month. Houston's James Harden, who moves into the No. 1 spot this week, and Golden State's Stephen Curry, who drops from No. 1 to No. 3, have been there all season long. The NBA's leading scorer and the best player on the league's best team, respectively, tend to occupy spots at the top in any season.

Cleveland's LeBron James and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, the two most electric performers over the course of the past month or so, are changing the conversation as the candidates jockey for position down the stretch run of the season.

MVP conversations that began with Harden and ended with Curry or began with Curry and ended with Harden, are now being extended.

There is no lock, no Kevin Durant this time around (a player whose mercurial season and specific story becomes the narrative for a MVP season).

Inside The NBA: MVP Race

EJ and the crew dive inside the MVP ranks throughout the Association.

It's anyone's race right now.

"One night I think it's easy to say Steph has been the MVP all season and his body of work needs to be rewarded," an Eastern Conference executive said when asked to assess the MVP race as of this moment. "Then I'll flip over and see James go off and think, how can you not go with a man doing all of the things he's doing under those circumstances? I think we all take LeBron for granted. Even after all of these years and all of the [MVP trophies] he's already won, people still take him for granted. And Russ, well, he's basically doing the same thing this season with KD in and out of the lineup with injury that KD did last season with Russ on the other side of that equation. I'll be honest, it's too close to call right now between the four of them. I could see anyone of them winning it, depending on how they finish."

The true contenders are playing like it's wide open night after night. And to the delight of those of us who love to observe and study these things, the principles are crossing paths on the regular.

LeBron went for a season-high 42 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists in Thursday night's showdown win over Curry and the Warriors.

Even if he wasn't hell bent on making a statement about who the real MVP is this season, his actions spoke louder than any words that could have been spoken.

I'll be honest, it's too close to call right now between the four of them. I could see anyone of them winning it, depending on how they finish.

– An Eastern Conference executive

"If you ask me, there's no discussion about the MVP if he's not involved in it," Cavaliers coach David Blatt told reporters after the game.

LeBron, never one to sidestep a challenge, played it cool afterwards, deflecting direct questions about the MVP race and keeping his focus on his improving team.

"I've got to be the MVP for the 14 other guys in this locker room," he said.

But even Curry couldn't help but acknowledge the game inside the game that played out Thursday night.

"If I'm playing one-on-one against (LeBron) and you just look at tonight, then I lost obviously," Curry said after struggling with his shot against the Cavs. "But it's about a body of work. It's about what your team is doing. It's about just being consistent over the course of the season. And that's my job. Tonight just wasn't my best, and it won't be the last bad game of my career, so I'll be all right."

Curry will be just fine (and you can bet the Splash Bros won't go 10-for-30 from the floor often). Plus, there's no telling where this race goes in the coming days and weeks.

Westbrook wasn't even in the conversation early on. But he's inserted himself into the mix with a flurry of spectacular performances throughout the course of the past month.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks has been effusive in his praise of Westbrook's energy, effort and leadership since before his point guard went on an absolute tear, including an MVP turn during All-Star weekend in New York. The competition sees the same things.

"He's explosive and he's been playing out of his mind with tremendous confidence over the past month," Suns guard Eric Bledsoe said after going toe-to-toe with Westbrook and his team coming out on top with an overtime win Thursday night in Phoenix.

The same could be said about Harden, LeBron and Curry.

This week's KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:

1) James Harden, Houston Rockets

(Last week: No. 2)

Harden Records Impressive Triple-Double

James Harden records 31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Monday's victory over Minnesota.

While the other frontrunners on this list have had their ups and downs lately, Harden has had no such issues. He continues to score at a ridiculous clip (27.8 points over his last 10 games) while also serving as the maestro of all things (7.3 assists and 6.6 rebounds during that same stretch) for a Rockets team that is surging (winners of three straight heading into tonight's game against Brooklyn at Toyota Center) at just the right time. Harden's mastery of a system that is predicated on his every move is what makes what he's doing this season so remarkable. Dwight Howard simply has not been healthy or effective enough to serve as a true No. 2, which puts even more pressure on Harden, who recorded a triple-double (31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) in a Monday win over Minnesota.

2) LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

(Last week: No. 3)

Nightly Notable: LeBron James

Highlights from LeBron James as he scores 42 points, grabs 11 rebounds and dishes out 5 assists.

In a week when all of the top candidates on this list had statement games, LeBron had perhaps the strongest showing in Thursday night's TNT thumping of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. He dropped a season-high 42 points to go with his 11 rebounds and 5 assists. The far more important numbers for LeBron and the Cavaliers remain their 18-2 record since mid-January, the best mark in the league. How anyone could take LeBron's impact for granted at this stage of his career is a mystery. The Cavaliers are up to third in the standings right now and within striking distance of the Toronto Raptors and the No. 2 spot. This time last season the Cavaliers were buried in the lottery mix. Can one guy make this big of a difference? Yes, when his name is LeBron James.

3) Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 1)

Curry Drops 32

Check out the highlights from Stephen Curry (32 points and eight assists) in the Warriors victory over the Wizards.

Curry gave Warriors fans a scare when he sat out Sunday's loss to the Indiana Pacers to rest his sore foot. He put those fears to bed with a 32-point (on 11-for-18 shooting from the floor, 5-for-9 from deep), 8-assist effort in a rout of John Wall and the Washington Wizards Tuesday. Curry struggled (5-for-17) with his shot in Thursday night's TNT showdown against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Warriors needed more than just a hot-shooting Curry to overcome the energy and effort LeBron brought to the arena. You can bet Curry and the Warriors will be cranked up and ready for the challenge that awaits in Toronto tonight in the form of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and the Raptors. The race for that No. 1 spot Curry held on to for weeks is starting to really heat up.

4) Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

(Last week: No. 5)

Westbrook's Triple Double

Highlights from Russell Westbrook as he scores 39 points, grabs 14 boards and dishes out 11 assists in the Thunder loss.

Westbrook saw one of the few players in the league at his position who can match him basically step-for-step, in Phoenix Suns dynamo Eric Bledsoe. And even he couldn't slow down the Thunder whirlwind, who collected his second straight triple-double (39 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists) and third this month before fumbling away what would have a been a game-tying layup with 5.7 seconds left in an overtime loss. Westbrook, who led the Thunder to a seven-game win streak, is doing so in epic fashion -- and without the aid of Kevin Durant (who missed his fourth straight game). Rajon Rondo (January of 2013) is the only player in the last five years with three triple-doubles in a month. Westbrook is the first player with five straight games of 20 or more points and 10 or more assists since ... he did it in January of 2011.

5) Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks

(Last week: No. 4)

Block of the Night: Jeff Teague

Jeff Teague alters Patrick Patterson's dunk attempt, then Teague hustles back again and blocks Patterson's shot.

A 3-for-4 stretch from right before and after the All-Star break had people wondering if Teague and the Hawks were finally coming back to reality after that unbeaten January run. And yet Teague and the Hawks still have a comfortable lead over the pack in the Eastern Conference standings, eight games ahead of second-place Toronto. Teague scored a combined 21 points on 17 total attempts in back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Mavericks this week. He played just 26 and 28 minutes, respectively, in those games. It's yet another instance where the Hawks' team-first mantra trumps any pursuit of individual glory. For Teague, it's the wins that are most important, of course.

6) LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers

(Last week: No. 10)

Forget about the pedestrian recent numbers (15.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists in his last five games) and consider that Aldridge might be the toughest player in the league this season, playing with that torn ligament in his left thumb. The Trail Blazers are going to need every bit of energy he can muster down the stretch of this regular season if they're going to hold on to their spot in the top half of the Western Conference playoff chase. Aldridge, who is averaging an impressive 23.1 points and 10.3 rebounds on the season, and the Blazers will get a huge test from that revamped, Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder team Friday night at Moda Center. The Thunder frontcourt better be ready for heavy doses of Aldridge early, often and all night as the Trail Blazers try and make a statement of their own.

7) Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 6)

Thompson's 39-points

Klay Thompson drops 39 points with five 3-pointers in a tough loss to the Pacers.

Thompson is in a bit of scoring slump, by his own lofty standards this season, since lighting the Indiana Pacers up for 39 points in a loss Sunday. Thompson scored just 17 points in a win over Washington and 13 on 5-for-13 shooting in a loss to Cleveland Thursday night. (He did add 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks in the loss to the Cavaliers.) Thompson has attempted a total of seven 3-pointers in his past two games, which is a serious diet from distance for a player who averages 7.1 attempts from that range. The slump shouldn't last, not for a player who has been on a tear basically all season, and certainly not for a player as relentless as Thompson has been for the Warriors.

8) Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

(Last week: No. 8)

Grizzlies vs. Blazers

Marc Gasol records 21 points and six rebounds, Courtney Lee adds 19 points as the Grizzlies defeat the Blazers.

If he's been nothing this season, Gasol has been spectacularly consistent with his scoring, rebounding and defensive positioning for a Grizzlies team that has thrived riding the back of its All-Star center. Gasol's 18.2 points, 8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks can be deceiving on a team where he isn't asked to serve as the offensive bell cow on a nightly basis (not with Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and now Jeff Green in the mix). Gasol's game, this season in particular, is more about the impact he has on both ends of the floor for a team that is built for long-term playoff success. And right now, the most important thing for Gasol and the Grizzlies is making sure the big fella is healthy and energized down the stretch of the regular season and going into the playoffs, where the Grizzlies will be one of the top seeds.

9) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

(Last week: No. 7)

Lillard's role as catalyst and director for a team that has a player as accomplished as LaMarcus Aldridge makes his inclusion on this list even more impressive. Lillard is asked to play so many different roles (facilitator, scorer, etc.) that a simple position designation doesn't do his game justice. In eight games this month, Lillard is averaging 19.6 points, 6.4 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 seals. Lillard worked the San Antonio Spurs for 18 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in a home win Wednesday night, knocking down 7 of his 15 shots from the floor and 3-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line. When Lillard is consistently knocking down that deep ball, he's as dangerous as any point guard in the league.

10) Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

(Last week: No. 9)

Lowry Finds Johnson

Kyle Lowry tosses the deep passes to Amir Johnson for the alley-oop dunk.

Lowry has been relatively quiet since the All-Star festivities, averaging 12.8 points, 6.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals since New York. The Raptors are 1-3 during that stretch, with an impressive win over the first-place Hawks at Philips Arena to cling to. Another prime opportunity to serve notice comes tonight on their home floor when Stephen Curry and the league-leading Golden State Warriors come to town. Lowry, who relishes the games within the game as much or more than any player and point guard in the league. The Raptors need Lowry to get back to his season standard of 18.3 points and 7.1 assists down the stretch if they are going to hold off Cleveland and stay in that No. 2 spot in the playoff chase behind the Hawks.

The next five: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks; John Wall, Washington Wizards; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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