Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Crunch-time performances help Chris Paul rise up

Clutch performance after clutch performance has a veteran guard rising in our latest look at the Top 5 Kia MVP contenders.

Chris Paul’s dogged focus and strong showings in the clutch have vaulted him into the Kia MVP discussion.

The set-up game continued even after Chris Paul left the floor.

Despite conjuring up a 25-point second half Wednesday in a 109-101 win over the LA Clippers that clinched Phoenix’s first postseason berth since the 2009-10 season, Paul kept lobbing oops to the team when discussing his latest accomplishment.

“I know who I am,” Paul said. “I knew coming into this situation, I knew who [Devin Booker] was. Book had told me about some guys on the team. I knew from playing with Monty [Williams] how detail-oriented he was. Then, when I got here and got a chance to see the culture they had already built, it’s special, man. For me, being away from my family, teams like this — they become your family.”

Set to celebrate his 36th birthday on Thursday, Paul checks in at No. 4 in this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

The Phoenix crowd shows their appreciation for Chris Paul and the Suns as they clinch a playoff birth for the first time since 2010.

The recognition seems overdue given the point guard’s contributions in helping the Suns clinch a playoff berth with 10 games remaining in the regular season.

After all, Paul remains one of the NBA’s most lethal clutch scorers, leading Phoenix this season to a winning percentage of .656 in clutch time, which is defined as any game separated by five points or fewer in the last five minutes.

The truth is that’s really just a continuation of last season, when Paul paced Oklahoma City to a league-best record of 30-15 in clutch time, only to reinforce the notion in Game 6 of the opening round of the 2020 playoffs by scoring 15 of his team-high 28 points in the fourth quarter of a Thunder comeback victory.

“He just seems to get stronger as the game progresses,” Suns coach Monty Williams explained. “He came over to me and said that tonight. He just felt strong down the stretch. His mentality doesn’t change. There’s no nerves, there’s no panic in him. He’s been there so many times.

“It speaks to the talent that he has, but it also speaks to the work and the experiences that he’s been in over the course of his long career. Our guys trust him. They just expect him to come through, and I’m happy with the results when he has the ball in his hands. When he and Book are closing out games, I can live with the results.”

The Suns are 20-11 this season in clutch situations with Paul steering the ship.

Booker was 13 years old the last time Phoenix advanced to the playoffs, while Paul was playing in his fifth NBA season.

“Think about it: they remind me day in and day out how much older I am than them,” Paul said. “You don’t have to remind me right now. But it’s cool, man, because Cam Payne was just saying they’re learning from me. Man, I’ve learned so much this year. Even now, game by game, I learn from the guys on our team. As long as you compete and play hard, you can live with the results. I think that’s the way our team approaches it.”

And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 26.2 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.4 spg

Nikola Jokic goes for 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a big win against the Pelicans.

If you’re keeping count, the Nuggets are now 8-1 since April 12, when the club lost Jamal Murray for the season to a torn left ACL. Denver is also dealing with injuries to Will Barton and Monte Morris, but Jokic continues to carry the squad, which outrebounded the Toronto Raptors 47-35 and outscored them 56-38 in the paint on the way to Thursday’s 121-111 win. Jokic racked up 11 rebounds in Thursday’s victory, one night removed from leading the Nuggets to a 114-112 triumph against the New Orleans Pelicans in which he scored 32 points to go with seven rebounds and eight assists … and the game-saving block.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 29.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1.4 bpg

Check out some of the best moments of Joel Embiid mic'd up through the years!

The only knock is he’s taken more 3-pointers in April than any other month this season, connecting on a season-low 28.3% during that span. But Embiid’s impact on games is undeniable. The 76ers are 21-4 with the starting lineup of Embiid, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Seth Curry and Ben Simmons. What’s scary as Philly approaches the postseason is that Embiid appears to be close to returning to 100% from the bone bruise in his left knee that forced him out of 10 games. “I don’t want to skip steps, but by the time we get to the playoffs, I should be back to the aggressiveness and the dominance I had before,” Embiid said.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 28.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 24 points in a romp against the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played just 46 seconds during Thursday’s loss to Houston before rolling his right ankle and limping off to the locker room. It’s worth noting that Antetokounmpo was just seven games into his return from missing six consecutive contests earlier in the month due to a sore knee. Milwaukee faces the Bulls on Friday in Chicago, and it would make sense for the Bucks to sit him with the team gearing up for a postseason run. “I think we’re hopeful it’s not serious,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said after the game. “We’ll see how he responds to treatment tonight, treatment tomorrow, [and we’ll] get an update at some point tomorrow.”

4. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

Last week’s ranking: No. 9

Season stats: 16.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 8.7 apg, 1.4 spg

Chris Paul came up clutch for the Suns in their win against the Clippers that clinched a playoff berth.

You heard the “M-V-P!” chants in recognition of Paul scoring 25 of his 28 points in the second half Wednesday as Phoenix clinched its first postseason berth since 2009-10. The Suns are 6-2 when Paul pours in 28 points or more, and in the win against the Clippers, the veteran contributed 10 assists and three steals. Still, leadership remains Paul’s most valuable asset, and a major reason why Phoenix consistently competes hard against the NBA’s better teams. The Suns are 4-2 in their last six games and 24-9 against teams .500 or better.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No.4

Season stats: 28.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 8.7 apg

Luka Doncic went for 39 points in as the Mavs toppled the Warriors.

Named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday, and followed that up by leading a total obliteration of the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday (39 points and eight assists in 28 minutes) before sitting out the fourth quarter of the 133-103 rout. Doncic took the night off for Dallas’ win over Detroit on Thursday due to sore elbow. It’s expected Doncic will be available Saturday when Dallas hosts the red-hot Washington Wizards, led by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, who earned recognition alongside the Mavericks’ star as Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

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The Next Five:

6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

8. Julius Randle, New York Knicks

9. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

And five more: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; James Harden, Brooklyn Nets; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat.

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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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