Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum getting comfortable in his All-Star skin

Taking stock of the Top 5 contenders in the Kia MVP Award chase

Jayson Tatum is still getting used to hearing it. Even those close to him cannot help but remind the Boston Celtics’ swingman that he must change the greeting they use to address him.

“Good morning, All-Star,” a Celtics assistant coach said to Tatum as he jogged onto the court at State Farm Arena for a recent shootaround.

All Tatum could do was shoot him a quick smile as he ran back into the relentless grind that has delivered the first of what could be many All-Star appearances.

Tatum is in a different space compared to where he was a year ago, when he and Jaylen Brown struggled with the adjustments they had to make playing alongside Kyrie Irving.

Brown and Tatum have both been spectacular at times with Kemba Walker now holding down Irving’s old spot. Either one of Tatum or Brown could have been an All-Star and been worthy of the honor.

The Celtics are rolling, winners of five straight games and eight of their last nine heading into Friday night’s game against Atlanta (7:30 ET, League Pass). Tatum has been outstanding over his past seven games, averaging 26.5 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg and 1.0 bpg.

He’s scored 20 or more points in seven straight games — the best such stretch of his career — and been basically unguardable during the Celtics’ 8-1 run since Jan. 20.

“Last year was tough,” Tatum said. “I didn’t live up to my own expectations of playing how I wanted to, so it kind of lit a fire under me this offseason to … I’m not going to say prove other people wrong, but just to be better and play the way I’m capable of.”

Tatum says he’s seeing totally different defensive coverages these days and is having no problems deciphering them.

“I’m drawing a lot more attention,” Tatum said. “Sometimes when I come off ball screens they will blitz me or be up and tight and that really wasn’t the case my first two years. So it’s just been about learning to navigate the danger and being a focal point that people use to scout our team.”

All the experience gained thus far, both good and bad, continue to pay off for Tatum and the Celtics.

“That’s all it is,” Tatum said. “The more years you play, the more games you play you feel more comfortable out there. You just learn a lot by trial and error. But in the end everybody just has to go out and do their job, whatever it is, and we’ll be fine. It’s really simple for us right now.”

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The Top 5 this week in the 2019-20 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.8 points, 13.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks

Giannis was at his freaky best Thursday night as the Bucks disposed of Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers behind his 36 points, 20 rebounds and six assists. It was a full day and night of work for the Bucks’ superstar, who spent part of his day drafting the All-Stars who will comprise Team Giannis at next week’s 69th All-Star Game in Chicago.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 25.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 1.3 steals

LeBron and the Lakers couldn’t solve Houston’s new ultra-small ball lineup in Thursday’s loss at Staples Center. The Lakers also didn’t execute any trades by Thursday’s deadline, meaning they’ll have to do any tinkering with the roster in the buyout market. Los Angeles native Darren Collison being spotted in the crowd might be more than just a coincidence.

3. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 27.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.9 steals

Leonard must feel good about all of the work the Clippers got done at the trade deadline. Adding Marcus Morris gives them another rugged, two-way player capable of supplying quality minutes on those nights when Leonard is out of the lineup. Leonard’s minutes when the full lineup is available will be managed accordingly with the new additions.

4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals

Adding a three-time champion and Finals MVP in Andre Iguodala to the All-Star frontcourt pairing of Butler and Bam Adebayo at the trade deadline was an absolute masterstroke by the Heat front office. Butler will have a veteran to lean on if needed. But, more importantly, he has a new partner on the perimeter every bit as capable as he is of locking an opposing star down.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 8

Season stats: 20.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.2 steals

Jokic is just the 10th player in NBA history to produce a 30-20-10 game, as he did in Wednesday’s showdown win in Utah. He’s been a dominating force as the Nuggets have continued to turn it up this season. Jokic’s campaign for Western Conference Player of the Month for February is off to a great start through three games (32.7 ppg, 14.7 rpg, 10 apg).

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Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet and I’ll get back to you!

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The Next Five:

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

9. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

10. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

And five more: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; James Harden, Houston Rockets; Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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