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Kia Race to MVP Header
Kia Race To The MVP
Kia Race To The MVP

Kia MVP Ladder: Irving enters chase with work on, off the floor

All-Star point guard steps up as leader to get Celtics in right direction

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Dec 28, 2018 10:13 AM ET

A more vocal Kyrie Irving has scored 20 or more points in seven of the last eight games.

The best of Kyrie Irving, both on and off the floor, has been on display the past few weeks.

With the Boston Celtics’ season at an early crossroad, of sorts, it was Irving who stepped into the leadership void to steer things in the right direction.

With injuries to key players complicating matters and chemistry issues still being sorted out, Irving was the veteran willing to step up and speak out in an effort to make sure the Celtics dealt with their issues head on.

 
Kyrie Irving pours in 40 points in a Christmas Day victory over the 76ers.

The Celtics had an inconsistent start to the season (10-10) before going on a eight-game win streak that was more like what was expected of them, only to hit the skids again briefly and lose three straight games before Irving piped up.

"I think everyone can see that we've obviously had some inconsistencies regarding our play,” he said, “so I think it was just time to address it."

A 36-minute players meeting in the locker room after a Dec. 21 home thumping from Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks was enough for Irving, who didn’t spare anyone (himself included) from the harsh spotlight.

It was a cathartic moment for the Celtics, who saw Al Horford return from a seven-game absence just in time for Sunday’s win in Charlotte. Kyrie was at his superstar best with the bright lights shining on Christmas.

He torched the Philadelphia 76ers for 40 points, unleashing his full offensive arsenal (shooting 17-for-33 from the floor, 5-for-10 from deep), while also grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out three assists.

He was in showtime mode again Thursday night against James Harden and the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center, finishing his night with 23 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and just one turnover. The Celtics simply had no answer for Harden, who like Irving moves up the ranks on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

But it’s clear Irving is ready to shoulder the burden of leading these Celtics, in whatever way necessary.

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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

 
Giannis Antetokounmpo came up huge on Christmas Day at MSG.

Last week:  No. 1

Season stats:  26.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.3 steals

Antetokounmpo turned Madison Square Garden into his very own Christmas playground when he smoked the Knicks for 30 points, 14 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks to kick off the league’s showcase day. And just so the Knicks know it wasn’t a fluke, he hurried them again Thursday night at Fiserv Forum with 31 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks in another rout. The Greek Freak is making it tough for anyone to nudge him from the top spot on this list; he’s averaging 24.8 points (on 60.9 shooting), 12.6 rebounds  5.6 assists and 1.7 blocks in his last 10 games. The Bucks are cruising during this stretch as well, solidifying their position as one of  the top teams in the Eastern Conference and the entire league at the close of the calendar year 2018. If this is just the warm up for 2019, Antetokounmpo can really crank up his MVP campaign between now and the All-Star break.

 

2. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

 
Kawhi Leonard managed 30 points in a Dec. 26 win over the Heat.

Last week:  No. 2

Season stats:  26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals

Leonard and the Raptors didn’t get an opportunity to showcase themselves for the world to see on Christmas but  made up for that scheduling snafu with an instant classic in a win over Miami on the day after the holiday. Leonard scored 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had two assists and two steals in the winning effort. December has been good to the Raptors’ prized summer acquisition — he’s averaging 30.1 points (on .520 shooting) to go along with his 8.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals. For all of the chatter about how good the Raptors have been with Leonard out of the lineup and how good their quality depth is and has been all season, the fate of this team rests on Leonard’s broad shoulders come playoff time. He’s the one element they’ve lacked in previous runs, as a true crunch-time, go-to player in the postseason. All that noise about him not being an ideal vocal leader looks like just that at this stage of his tenure in Toronto.

 

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

 
LeBron James is expected to miss a handful of games with a strained groin.

Last week:  No. 3

Season stats:  27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.3 steals

Lakers Nation held its collective breath earlier this week, awaiting the word on LeBron’s MRI after he heard a “pop” when he went down in the third with a groin injury in the third quarter of the Lakers’ Christmas Day blowout over the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The news was better than expected but the catalyst for the Lakers’ revival this season is still expected to miss “several games.” This could actually prove to be a critical stretch for the Lakers. If they can manage to maintain their position in the Western Conference standings without LeBron in uniform, it’ll speak volumes about the growth and development of their youngsters. It will also instill some confidence in the entire group if they can piece together a few wins without the new king of Los Angeles. All that said, it would be shortsighted of anyone to dismiss the work LeBron has put in during the early-season turnaround this team has undergone. He was playing as well as anyone in the league this month (25.8 points on .516 shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.3 steals).

 

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

 
Stephen Curry puts up 29 points in loss to the Trail Blazers.

Last week:  No. 4

Season stats:  28.6 points, 5.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Curry bounced back from yet another uncharacteristic Christmas Day performance (just 15 points on an ugly 5-for-17 shooting) with a big night against his brother Seth and the Portland Trail Blazers. But his 29 points and a triple-double from Kevin Durant wasn’t enough to lift the Warriors past Damian Lillard’s late-game heroics against his hometown team. If there was ever a time to be concerned about Curry and these Warriors, it’s now. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson cannot find their marks. The bench production is non-existent at times. And the edge the Warriors have used to their advantage for years seems to have vanished. The boost they need is more than just adding a superstar talent like Boogie Cousins (whose recovery from his Achilles injury seems to be in hyperdrive). The Warriors might need both Curry and Durant to go off script a bit and shake things up by going nuclear offensively to strike fear in teams the way this team once did. They’ve become far too predictable a target without the proper support from their other stars.

 

5. James Harden, Houston Rockets

 
Reigning MVP James Harden has been on a scoring tear during the end of December.

Last week:  No. 7

Season stats:  32.3 points, 8.4 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 steals

The reigning Kia MVP will not be denied any longer. Harden has been on an absolute tear of late and is bringing the Rockets back into focus in the Western Conference playoff chase while doing so. He’s posted back-to-back 40 point games (45 in Thursday’s showdown win over the Boston Celtics and 41 in the Christmas Day win over the Oklahoma City Thunder). He’s currently on a career-best eight-game run scoring 30 or more points, the first player to do so since Russell Westbrook did it in November of 2016. Harden’s the first to score 35 or more in six straight games since former teammate Carmelo Anthony accomplished the feat in April of 2013. Harden’s eight games of 40 or more points this season leads the league (Anthony Davis is second with five). The Celtics tried every player in uniform to stop him but to no avail. But Harden’s best work has been pulling the Rockets out of their sub-.500 hole at Thanksgiving to a season-best four games over .500 as they close out the 2018 portion of their schedule.

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The next five

6. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

T-8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

T-8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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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.

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