Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum enters mix as Joel Embiid returns to top

Boston's star forward joins the Kia MVP fray while Joel Embiid leapfrogs Nikola Jokic as the season nears its end.

Jayson Tatum has emerged as one of the NBA’s top performers since the All-Star break.

The Kia MVP Ladder is published every Friday during the season with an in-depth look at the top Kia MVP candidates. But with multiple players still in the mix for the award this season, is also publishing a daily MVP Tracker detailing the game-by-game performance of each player.

It’s probably long overdue, but let’s welcome Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum to the chat.

Named one of the NBA Players of the Week on two occasions already this month, Tatum scorched the Utah Jazz on Wednesday for 11 of his 26 points in a virtually flawless opening frame, as Boston started the game shooting 15 of 19 from the floor and 7 of 9 from deep to capture its 21st victory in its last 24 outings by way of a 125-97 stomping.

“We could’ve made excuses coming off a long [four-game] road trip (that Boston finished undefeated, winning three of those games by 20 points or more) and had a slow start, but we didn’t want to,” Tatum told NBC Sports Boston while clutching his son, Deuce, in the postgame on-court interview. “We wanted to come out and prove a point.”

Mission accomplished.

Jayson Tatum was the sparkplug for the Celtics in a big win vs. the Jazz.

Simultaneously, Tatum vaulted himself into the thick of today’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, making his top five debut at No. 4 in this hotly-contested battle behind new leader Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Just 54 days ago, the Celtics defeated Miami behind a combined 49 points from Jaylen Brown and Tatum to improve to 27-15, leaving the team sitting at ninth in the Eastern Conference standings.

Now, Boston owns the longest active winning streak in the East (five games), holds the fourth spot, and threatens to creep into the top three.

“We’re clicking on all cylinders,” Tatum told NBC Sports Boston.

Since the All-Star break, Tatum has lifted his scoring average from 25.7 points to 32.1 on 50.7% from the field and 43.8% from long range to go with 7.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists on the way to becoming the league’s current total plus-minus leader.

The Celtics' improved pick-and-roll defense has made them one of the hottest teams in the league.

The Celtics have defeated the Warriors, Nuggets, and Jazz by a combined 70 points going back to March 16, and they’ve led by 20 points or more in their last five games in addition to holding four of their last six opponents to fewer than 100 points.

“Hopefully next year, I can start off like that,” Tatum said, as his son, Deuce, poked at the NBC Sports Boston microphone. “Then, I can be in that conversation if we keep winning like this. But I don’t know. I guess I just had to get my legs under me. It’s just that time of the year. It’s time to get ready for the playoffs. We all just turn it up a notch.”

Let’s go.

And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 29.8 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 4.3 apg

Joel Embiid returned to the 76ers' lineup and lit up the Lakers for 30 points.

Embiid put together four straight games with at least 32 points, before finishing with 21 points in a loss Sunday to the Toronto Raptors. Embiid sat out the following night against Miami due to back soreness, before returning Wednesday to drop another 30-piece against the Lakers that included 10 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals. Embiid leads the NBA in both 30-point games and 30-point outings with 10 rebounds, as Philadelphia sits just a half game behind Milwaukee at third in the East. The Sixers are 26-8 this season when Embiid scores 30 points or more. But they’ve got to be careful with the big man down the stretch because it’s apparent his back issue continues to linger.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 26.2 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 7.9 apg

Nikola Jokic delivered a 30-point performance in a win vs. the Clippers.

Jokic continues to battle through tough times as the Nuggets have gone 1-3 since the release of our last Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Denver dropped two in a row to Cleveland and Boston, before the reigning MVP racked up 30 points on just 15 shots with 14 rebounds, and six assists Tuesday to put the Nuggets back on the winning track against the LA Clippers. Denver ran into a buzz saw Thursday, though, in the Suns. Phoenix clinched the No. 1 seed for the playoffs with a 140-130 win in a game that saw 14 lead changes (and one in which Jokic scored 28 points).

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.8 apg

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 25 points along with 17 rebounds and five assists in a win vs. Chicago.

Sat out for the second time in three games to rest a sore knee, but Milwaukee made out just fine without him and Khris Middleton (sore left wrist) in demolishing the Washington Wizards 114-102 on Thursday in a game it led by as many as 28 points. Against Chicago on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo tied a career-high with nine turnovers, but still put together a dominant performance with 25 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. (And, if you haven’t had a chance, make sure you check out our 75th Anniversary piece on Antetokounmpo here.)

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.3 apg

Jayson Tatum shredded the Thunder with an efficient 36-point outing.

We discussed Tatum’s performance above, but click here if you want to see some of his highlights from Wednesday’s dominant win vs. Utah. If you want context on what Tatum and the Celtics are doing, check out colleague John Schuhmann’s latest Power Rankings Notebook, which dissects Tatum’s brilliant scoring since the All-Star break. What’s more impressive is Tatum has done his post All-Star break work on 51/44/90 shooting as the Celtics are scoring 16.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (124.4) than they have with him off the floor (107.7) over that span. Tatum and Brown have combined to average 57.4 points over Boston’s last five games.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 27.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 8.6 apg

Luka Doncic finished with 15 points and 10 assists in a big win against the Wolves.

A sore ankle kept Doncic out of Dallas’ 110-91 win against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, and guard Jalen Brunson was asked what changes for the Mavs without the young point guard on the floor. “Besides not having a generational talent, not a lot,” he said. Fair enough. But since re-entering the top five of the MVP Ladder, Doncic put together a clunker in a loss at Philadelphia on March 18 and shot 5 of 15 on Monday, before delivering a couple of big assists down the stretch to help the Mavs best the Timberwolves in a hard-fought affair. The rematch in Minnesota on Friday (8 ET, NBA League Pass) should be a good one.

The Next Five:

6. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 4)

7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)

8. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week’s ranking: T-7)

9. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)

10. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week’s ranking: unranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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