One stumble, one faulty step and it all goes up in smoke.
That’s the fear Milwaukee Bucks fans are living through these days with injuries plaguing the roster of the NBA’s best team on a seemingly nightly basis.
And that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ Kia MVP candidate and frontrunner (for many), who suffered a scare Thursday night when he ran into Garrett Temple late in a thumping of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Antetokounmpo tweaked his right ankle, the same one that he sprained against Philadelphia and cost him two games last week, and didn’t finish the game. He worked the Clippers for 34 points and nine rebounds before exiting, but the bigger issue remains for the Bucks and the Greek Freak.
In a skin-tight chase for the Kia MVP, will the Bucks have to choose between keeping Antetokounmpo healthy for the postseason over allowing him to run through the tape in his neck-and-neck race with reigning Kia MVP James Harden?
Antetokounmpo’s ambition is to take care of both tasks, as he made clear after the win over the Clippers, even though the ultimate decision could and probably should be made by Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and the team’s medical staff.
"I think the coaching staff, Bud and the medical staff have done a great job knowing when to pull me away from a game," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "I trust them. It doesn't matter if I am going through pain or I don't feel good. I am always prepared to play the game. There are going to be some days I am going to play with pain. There's going to be a lot of days I'm stubborn and saying I want to go play, but Coach Bud is like, 'No, you are not going to play.’”
If there was any doubt as to Antetokounmpo’s focus this season, put it to rest. He’s locked in on the Bucks’ playoff potential and their procurement of the No. 1 overall seed and home court advantage that accompanies it throughout the entire postseason.
But he’s human. He also knows how tantalizingly close he is to crossing one of his individual goals off of his list.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic recently. “It’s one of my goals as a player to one day be the MVP of this league, but I’m not going to go into the discussions. ‘Giannis said this. James said that. Paul George said whatever. (Nikola) Jokic said this.’ I’m not going to go in a back-and-forth discussion. I don’t want to say anything.”
He doesn’t have to. The rest of us will take care of that for him, sorting out the details of each campaign.
The reality is the Bucks are solid in the standings. They’ve built some separation there that should hold up over the final two weeks of the season.
But in that other race, the one that Antetokounmpo might have to win in a photo finish, there is no cushion … and therefore, no room for a late-season stumble.
Not even from the frontrunner.
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The top five this week in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 27.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
The Bucks have a nice break before Sunday’s game against an improved Atlanta team, a break that will provide a couple of days for Antetokounmpo to let his tender right ankle rest a bit. They’ll take a four-game win streak with them to Atlanta, having secured quality wins over Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers in their two most recent outings. Antetokounmpo had an opportunity to go head-to-head with reigning Kia MVP James Harden in the win over the Rockets, but neither of the frontrunners for the top spot this season made a mark significant enough to sway any potential swing voters. Their base constituencies would argue that the cases have already been made. Giannis has continued to grind his way to the finish, bumps and bruises be darned, as the unquestioned best player on the best team in the league from wire to wire. It’s a metric that has worked like a charm in years past where MVP voting is concerned. Harden rode that train to his first Kia MVP last season. The Greek Freak could be putting the finishing touches on his own version of the same master plan.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 36.2 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals
With the added emphasis that is always placed on scoring, and rightfully so, Harden’s campaign for a second straight Kia MVP appears to be rock solid. Harden could finish this season having scored six more points than he did a year ago, when he led the league with a 30.4 average. Harden’s scoring barrage this season has been nothing short of spectacular. The spikes, the 50- and even 60-point games, are one thing. But it’s the brilliant consistency that separates Harden from the pack of scoring stars that populate the league these days. He’s scored 20 or more points in 51 straight games, the third longest single-season 20-point streak since the 1983-84 season. The fact that he’s delivered the Rockets from the bottom of the Western Conference standings to top four territory through adversity that would have sacked most teams in the same position, is perhaps the most impressive thing he’s done. The Rockets don’t sniff the top four without Harden going nuclear on a consistent basis with Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and other key rotation players missing significant time with injury.
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 27.8 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals
Years from now, when the story of the Warriors’ current run is embedded in the history books as potentially the best dynasty the league has seen since the Bill Russell-led Celtics of the 1960s, there will be an even greater appreciation for what Curry has done as the backbone of what the Warriors have accomplished. It’s easy to gloss over it in the midst of the run, especially when Klay Thompson and most recently Kevin Durant (near perfect shooting game in Wednesday’s win over Memphis) help fuel the Warriors’ spectacular parade on a nightly basis. Dare we say that Curry’s contributions have been taken for grated, by some, during this era of dominance? He wouldn’t be the first Kia MVP working these days to fall victim to his own wicked standard (see James, LeBron; Westbrook, Russell; Durant Kevin and Harden, James). But he might be the most surprising, given the way he plays and the way his rise to stardom has served the gateway for a championship era for an entire franchise. It’s something to chew on, Curry’s ability to play as well as he has two seasons removed from the second of his back-to-back Kia MVPs.
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week: No. 4
Season stats: 27.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks
Embiid is in the mood these days, eager to send messages to anyone willing to listen, that he’ll be handing out consistent punishment in the postseason. He dropped that not-so-subtle message on the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night with a monster 39-point, 16-rebound and six-assist showcase against a team the Sixers could see in the first round in a couple of weeks. Embiid’s 16-point first quarter set the tone for the night, and basically every night he’s been on the floor since his post-All-Star break hiatus for load management. Embiid’s blend of superior size, skill and overflowing confidence makes him the most dangerous individual force heading into the postseason, provided he avoids the injury issues that inevitably comes with the Embiid superstar kit at this stage of his career. For all that he’s done so far, we still don’t know if Embiid can raise his game to that galactic level in the playoffs that translates into a deep run into May, and perhaps June. No one is disputing that the raw materials are in place. The Sixers have a starting five built for the big stage. The only lingering question is whether or not Embiid is prepared to serve as the energy source for this group once the brightest lights come on?
5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 5
Season stats: 28.2 points 8.1 rebounds, 4.12 assists, 2.2 steals
The Thunder’s late-season swoon has overshadowed what’s been a stellar, MVP-caliber season for George. His postseason accolades could include a spot on not only the Kia MVP list but also Defensive Player of the Year mention and, crazy as it sounds, some Most Improved ballots. George has had that sort of season. But the forces that can change things in an instant are crashing into each other at the worst time for George and the Thunder. Not only are they struggling right now, his sore right shoulder, the one that has been nagging him for weeks, could keep him out of some crucial games down the stretch of this season, including tonight’s showdown against Denver (8 ET, NBA League Pass). And the Thunder need George at his best heading into the postseason for bottom line reasons more than they do to legitimize his status for anything that will transpire during awards season. Any rest Billy Donovan can find for George or Russell Westbrook at this stage of the season without the Thunder falling apart is a bonus. And with the certainty in the playoff standings right, there are no breaks to be had.
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The Next Five
6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
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
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