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, NBA.com is also publishing a daily MVP Tracker detailing the game-by-game performance of each player.
The ballots hit inboxes of Kia MVP voters everywhere this week, but Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps making it increasingly difficult to punch send.
For the second time in three nights, Antetokounmpo engineered a Milwaukee comeback victory over an Eastern Conference heavyweight on Thursday, sinking two free throws with three ticks left in overtime as the Bucks bested the Brooklyn Nets 120-119 at Barclays Center.
The win lifted Milwaukee to within a half-game of Miami for the lead in the Eastern Conference standings.
Antetokounmpo made it all possible by draining a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left in regulation to force OT on a shot that moved him past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Milwaukee’s all-time leading scorer.
“It’s just a tribute to everything he does all the time, the work he puts in. [He] just kind of does whatever we need to win a game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “To make the 3 to send it to overtime and make the free throws to win it, he’s special. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is just one of the iconic players in our league.
“So, for Giannis to pass him as organizationally our all-time career leading scorer, to have a front-row seat for the last almost four years, I just feel incredibly fortunate. To see where he’s come from, how hard he’s worked, and all the great coaching he’s gotten along the way, it’s just beyond impressive what he’s done, and he’s got a lot more left ahead of him.”
Antetokounmpo moves up a spot in this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. But with nine days remaining in the regular season, the race remains too close to definitively call. Like the fringe teams clawing for berths in the postseason and Play-In Tournament, Antetokounmpo continues to surge during crunch time of this MVP race with stellar two-way play.
Antetokounmpo poured in 44 points to go with 14 rebounds and six assists against a desperate Brooklyn team, producing his second 40-point outing since Tuesday, when he scored 40 points with 14 rebounds and the game-clinching block on Joel Embiid in a comeback win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“That’s definitely MVP, that’s definitely Most Improved Player, which I’m not even sure he can get at this point,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “But he’s improved his game a lot, and it’s shown. From the free-throw line to his 3-point shot, from last year to this year it’s so much better. He does everything. He hit my man with a between-the-legs, behind-the-back step-back 3. This man’s doing everything. I don’t know how much more he can do than averaging 60 points a game, but he’s [expletive] near doing that.”
With 3:52 left to play against Brooklyn, Milwaukee trailed by nine points before Wesley Matthews and Bobby Portis hit timely buckets combined with two free throws apiece from Holiday and Antetokounmpo to cut the Nets’ lead to three points.
Antetokounmpo knotted the score at 110 in regulation on the step-back 3 before hitting the game-winning free throws in OT.
Antetokounmpo entered the game 39 points behind Abdul-Jabbar and said he wasn’t initially aware of reaching this latest milestone.
“It doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day if you don’t have a successful season, you don’t try to keep getting better, and staying humble, and staying hungry to play all the way to May or June, nobody is gonna remember this,” Antetokounmpo said. “So, I just want us to stay humble. I want myself to stay humble.
“I feel like the more humble I get, and the more hungry I stay, the more things I can accomplish, the more art I can create. Playing basketball is like creating art. I’ve just got to keep staying humble, keep trying to make my teammates win games, and good things like tonight are gonna happen.”
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 26.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 8.0 apg
With Denver looking to avoid the Play-In Tournament, Jokic has averaged 32.7 points over his last three games to go with 14.6 rebounds and 9.3 assists as the Nuggets have won three in a row. Jokic dropped 37 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in Wednesday’s win over Indiana, which moved Denver to fifth in the West. But Utah’s 122-109 win over the Lakers on Thursday pushed the Nuggets back down to sixth. That certainly ratchets up the stakes for Friday’s matchup against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who own a 2-1 record this season against Denver and have beaten the Nuggets by an average of 16 points.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 5.8 apg
Check out this angle on Antetokounmpo’s game-tying 3 at the end of regulation. Now, digest this introspective quote from the two-time MVP: “I think this is the most mature I’ve ever been. I’m over myself. I’m able to get to my spots better, execute, and if the ball doesn’t go in, I’m O.K. with it. I think it’s called ‘abundance mentality.’ I love what I’ve done in the past and that gives me confidence. I’m able to go out there and execute without thinking, without having self-doubts, or thinking I’m not good enough. That allows me to play good basketball. Mentally, I’m in a very good place. Physically, I think I can still improve. But I’m helping my team win games. So, I’m good. I don’t know if this is the best I’ve ever played, but I know that I’ve got a lot of room to improve.”
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 30.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 4.2 apg
The Sixers are headed in the wrong direction having lost three in a row, including Thursday’s 102-94 setback against the Detroit Pistons. But you can’t place any blame on Embiid, who racked up 18 of his game-high 37 points in the first half against the Pistons and has averaged 34.3 points and 14.7 rebounds over his last three outings. A young, hot Charlotte team comes to town on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass) before Philadelphia embarks on a three-game road trip where it faces Cleveland, Indiana and Toronto. Embiid and the Sixers would benefit tremendously from some consistency from new addition James Harden, who shot 4 of 15 against Detroit.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.3 apg
Tatum sat out Monday’s loss at Toronto and put up 23 points Wednesday against Miami as Boston dropped two in a row for the first time since January. Tatum picked up his 13th technical foul of the season against the Heat. So, he’s got to be careful over Boston’s final five games to avoid drawing three more and earning an automatic one-game suspension. Miami provided an enhanced taste of what Tatum can expect in the postseason by blitzing and trapping him often. Teams have done it all season, but the Heat were more successful than others. “Miami was coming after him pretty strong,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 7
Season stats: 26.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.9 apg
The best player on the NBA’s top team deserves to be in the MVP conversation. Booker’s been in it all season, just not at the forefront. That’s not a knock on his level of play this season. Over 11 games in March, Booker averaged 30.1 points per game on 52.5% from the field and 41.3% from deep with 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals as Phoenix won its ninth straight Wednesday at Golden State. Booker struggled somewhat, shooting 5 of 21 from the floor, but he drilled a couple of crucial free throws down the stretch with the game on the line. Named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday, Booker and the Suns will be tested again Friday on the road at Memphis.
The Next Five:
6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 5)
7. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
9. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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