Votes for the Kia Most Valuable Player award are not cast until after Game No. 82. That's a good thing, as voters and NBA observers in general still seem divided between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden with less than a week remaining in the regular season.
The Greek Freak punctuated his own campaign in Milwaukee's nationally televised 128-122 win over Philadelphia. To the big-picture purists, Antetokounmpo's 45 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks were symbolic of the Bucks clinching the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 playoffs. He is officially the best player on the league's best team, a definition many feel goes hand-in-hand with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Zoom in, and Antetokounmpo's case can be captured in one sequence against his rival unicorn. On one end, the Bucks superstar bullies Joel Embiid in the paint:
The very next possession, Antetokounmpo meets and mutilates an Embiid dunk attempt:
This is apex superstar stuff: a collision of 25-and-under superstars (hopefully) destined to clash in power struggles for years to come. Antetokounmpo owned Embiid all night while rallying his suddenly shorthanded team in the final minutes. Giannis all but clinched the outcome by blocking Embiid again, this time with a merciless swat of Embiid's normally unstoppable spin move.
Thursday's image of Antetokounmpo is one voters will have a hard time forgetting -- unless Harden produces yet another historic performance of his own over Houston's final three games.
And therein lies the danger to Antetokounmpo's MVP run. The Rockets, who lead fourth-place Portland by just half a game, need the final week of the regular season. The Bucks, who have first place all sewn up, do not. Houston could very well require Harden's Herculean efforts to finish the season on their teams. Milwaukee will be sorely tempted to rest their own superstar in preparation for the playoffs.
If that's the case, will the image of Antetokounmpo willing Milwaukee over the contending Sixers be enough? His supporters can only hope so. As for Giannis, whatever doubts he may have had concerning himself were banished when Kobe Bryant challenged him on Twitter nearly two years ago.
"He made me believe it even more," Antetokounmpo admitted after the game. "A guy like Kobe saying 'go get the MVP' made me change my mentality and believe it even more that I can do it.
The King approves
As a team, the Lakers had little more than lottery balls on the line against the Warriors. Yet with L.A. clearly disappointed by this season's outcome, the search is already on for how to better equip LeBron James with a better supporting cast for 2019-20.
The front office might want to look at retaining Alex Caruso full-time. The former G League standout is shooting 51.4 percent from 3-point range -- a tantalizing trickle for a team dying of thirst from beyond the arc all season.
Apparently, Caruso can also do this:
If the pure burst of hustle and athleticism wasn't enough to convince the Lakers that Caruso is worth more than meaningless end-season minutes, perhaps James' reaction will help:
When talent and skill meet instinct and opportunity, magic happens:
Then again, we might be making too big a deal out of what has become routine for Stephen Curry's teammates.
"He's had some better passes than that one," Kevin Durant corrected reporters after the game. "That was a great pass. That was a good look, but that's normal for him."
Kevin Durant said that lefty transition behind-the-backer wasn’t the best pass Steph Curry has ever thrown him. What was? pic.twitter.com/I1NSl9yuHe— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 5, 2019