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.
We’ve reached the penultimate edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, and the picture remains hazier than the view from the leather couch at your favorite cigar lounge.
Clearly, the focus for the top of the leaderboard is playoff positioning headed into the last week of the season.
That explains how Nikola Jokic completed a masterpiece in Thursday’s 122-109 win over Memphis, becoming the first player in NBA history to produce 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season on the strength of a 35-point performance that included 16 rebounds, six assists, and four steals as Denver advanced to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Out in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo pushed the Bucks to No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings with two games remaining by racking up 29 points and 11 rebounds in a 127-121 victory against Boston.
Both players maintain the top two spots in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
“Every year we are better and better,” Jokic said. “Even through the injuries, even through guys not playing, we still made the playoffs. In the playoffs, anything can happen. So, we need to prepare ourselves.”
Wearing a red headband after Jaren Jackson Jr. opened a gash on his forehead in the first minute of action with an inadvertent elbow, Jokic scored his 31st point of the night with 5:20 left to play on a turnaround jumper that put Denver ahead 116-96. Immediately, “M-V-P” chants broke out inside Ball Arena, where new Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson sat courtside with his R&B singer bride Ciara (and Wilson caught up with Jokic postgame, too).
With 3:19 remaining, Jokic checked out of the game for good as Denver coach Michael Malone whipped the crowd into a frenzy of “M-V-P” chants again from the bench.
“Two-thousand-plus points, 1000-plus rebounds, 500-plus assists, it’s just remarkable what he’s done,” Malone said. “I know I’m very biased. I admit that wholeheartedly. The MVP isn’t even a competition. There’s other great players. I’m not saying that they’re not great players, but what Nikola Jokic has done this year with this team, with everything we’ve had to go through, is incredible.
“He was good last year. He’s even better this year. So, well-deserved. The fans gave him the standing O, his teammates did the same thing; hugs all around. Four years in a row, we’ve made the playoffs. So, I couldn’t be more proud of our group. And think about it: Ciara even came to the game. So, that was an added bonus.”
In Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday scored 29 points apiece as the Bucks defeated a depleted Celtics team missing Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III by erasing a 3-point deficit with a 9-0 run over the last 2:27 to close the game.
The league’s third-leading scorer (29.9 points per game), Antetokounmpo last week compared playing basketball to creating art and expounded on that thought Thursday night after the victory over the Celtics.
“Every game is an opportunity to create. I just try to let go of the past and I imagine like a canvas in front of me,” Antetokounmpo said. “Today was one game. I was able to create.
“Tomorrow, when I wake up, I reset, throw [the canvas] in the storage, in the garage. Tomorrow, I have the room to create another one. So, I always want to be motivated. I want to be fresh. I want to let go of the past good or bad. That was that art that was created. Today, I reset, get a new canvas, and try to create new art.”
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. 1
Season stats: 27.1 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg
Check out this awesome standing ovation from the crowd at Ball Arena after Jokic achieved his latest milestone. Then, look at his postgame reaction. Here’s what Jokic had to say about the MVP conversation: “I won it last year. Did I see some kind of difference? To be honest, no. I think I’ve had a great season. Even better than last year. If that’s enough, it’s enough. If it’s not … you cannot control that. If they’re gonna give it, they’re gonna give it. I think there are a lot of guys that play at an extremely high level in the NBA. You can see how talented the league is. There is a bunch, literally like 20 players that can be like superstars. So, I’m just trying to be humble, to stay on the ground.”
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.9 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.8 apg
Here’s one of Antetokounmpo’s dunks on phantom cam from the win over Boston. Here’s what he had to say when asked about focusing on individual accolades: “It holds you back. I really believe in this: you don’t get to your full potential when you worry about the wrong things. I’m obsessed with basketball. I really want to be the best that I can be. I’m not about [being the] scoring champ. I can care less. I’m not about [winning] MVP. I can care less. I just want to be the best that I can be and wherever that takes me, I’m O.K. with that. So, if I keep worrying about [whether] I can be scoring champ, what I’ve done in the past … nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, it takes me from the goals that I really want to achieve.”
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 30.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 4.2 apg
Embiid put up 44 points to go with 17 rebounds and five blocks Sunday in a win vs. Cleveland, and followed up Tuesday with 45 points and 13 rebounds in a 131-122 victory against the Indiana Pacers. The Sixers closed their three-game road trip Thursday with a 119-114 loss to the Toronto Raptors in what might’ve been a preview of the opening round of the playoffs. Toronto was missing Fred VanVleet (knee) and OG Anunoby (quadriceps) while Matisse Thybulle was ruled ineligible to play for the Sixers. Still, the Raptors captured their third win in four games against Philadelphia this season despite Embiid’s 30-point, 10-rebound effort.
4. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 26.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.9 apg
Booker has sat out of two of Phoenix’s last three games, including Wednesday’s loss to the LA Clippers, which was the second leg of a back-to-back set. When you seize such a monstrous lead in the conference, you’re entitled to a little rest before the start of the playoffs. Booker has scored 30 points or more in his last two appearances, including this 32-point gem in his last game. Phoenix finishes up its current two-game road trip on Friday at Utah, before concluding the regular season Sunday at home against the Sacramento Kings.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 28.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.8 apg
Just when you think you’ve seen just about everything in this guy’s arsenal, Doncic surprises you once again with a dime like this. The Mavericks won three of four on their most recent road trip with Doncic recording his 43rd double-double of the season in Wednesday’s 131-113 win over the Detroit Pistons, which gave Dallas 50 victories on the season for the first time since 2014-15. You can look at all of Doncic’s dimes from that game here. The man is averaging 12 assists over his last five games, and he’s scored 32 points or more in four of those outings.
The Next Five:
6. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last week’s ranking: No. 4)
T-7. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
T-7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
9. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
10. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
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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