Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Joel Embiid leaps over Jayson Tatum, takes No. 2 spot

Luka Doncic and Ja Morant slip while 3 new names enter the chase in our weekly review of the Top 5 Kia MVP contenders.

The 76ers won their 7th consecutive game Saturday, with a white-hot Joel Embiid leading the way.

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum set off Boston’s second NBA Rivals Week appearance in style, strolling into the building Thursday in green and black plaid accented with a turtleneck and a pair of black Travis Scott X Air Jordan 1 Low OGs.

Unwittingly, the 24-year-old dressed for an occasion that turned into Julius Randle Night at TD Garden.

“We lost tonight, three [games] in a row,” Tatum said. “We’ve got to get back on track and get a win. All things considered, we’ve still got the best record. We’ve still had an amazing year. So, those times when we won nine straight, don’t get too excited. When you lose three in a row, don’t get too down on yourself.”

Minutes after receiving news that he was named an All-Star starter for the third straight season, Tatum nailed the first of two 3-pointers — not to mention his first five shots — in fueling a Boston onslaught that saw the home team hit 6-for-12 from deep in the opening frame alone.

Game Recap: Knicks 120, Celtics 117

That early success proved fleeting in the face of Randle’s relentless attack. Randle scored a game-high 37 points with nine rebounds, sinking crucial free throws down the stretch to outduel Tatum, who poured in a team-high 35 points, in the New York Knicks’ 120-117 overtime win.

The game marked the fifth matchup of NBA Rivals Week, and Luka Doncic starred in the Game 6 nightcap in Phoenix that he couldn’t finish due to a sprained left ankle suffered just minutes into the Mavericks’ 99-95 win over the Suns.

NBA Rivals Week continues its slate of 11 nationally televised games Friday with the Memphis Grizzlies visiting the Minnesota Timberwolves (7:30 ET, NBA TV) and the Golden State Warriors hosting the Toronto Raptors (10 ET, NBA TV).

But let’s get back to Tatum, though.

Selected to his fourth consecutive NBA All-Star Game, Tatum bested fellow MVP candidate Joel Embiid for the third and final starting frontcourt spot in the East after the league collected all the votes (fan balloting accounted for 50% of the total and the final 50% of the vote was split by the media and NBA players). But the Boston star couldn’t fend off Embiid in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, especially not with the Sixers having won six straight while the Celtics have lost three consecutive games for just the second time this season.

Embiid sneaks up to No. 2 in the chase behind reigning two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic. Tatum slides to third and Giannis Antetokounmpo creeps up one spot to fourth after returning Monday from a five-game break due to a bout with knee soreness.

Doncic, meanwhile, falls down a rung to fifth.

And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 25.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.9 apg

A tight left hamstring knocked Jokic out of Denver’s 107-99 loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday, and the reigning two-time MVP has missed three of the team’s last four games. Typically, missed starts equal cause for concern. But Jokic returned to the lineup Tuesday after sitting the previous two games, and churned out another gem with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a win at New Orleans. The game at Milwaukee — a potential clash between the last four MVP winners — came on the second night of a back-to-back, which likely means Jokic’s absence was likely just preventative. In fact, Denver sat out four starters as Nuggets coach Michael Malone lamented the “impossible job” the NBA has in putting together the 82-game schedule.

Nikola Jokic turns in a 25-point triple-double in a win over the Pelicans.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 33.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.1 apg

With Embiid at the center of it all, Philadelphia is must-watch TV, especially for NBA Rivals Week. The Sixers dropped the Brooklyn Nets 137-133 on Wednesday for their sixth consecutive win in the first clash between former teammates Embiid and Ben Simmons. The center posted up Simmons just a minute into the game but finished 6-for-18 from the field and 13-for-13 at the free-throw line. (Overall, Simmons guarded Embiid for 2:10 in that game.) “I missed a lot of shots, which hasn’t happened in a while,” said Embiid, who averaged 35.1 points in his previous seven contests before putting up 26 points against the Nets. The play in the paint should only intensify Saturday when Embiid and the Sixers host Jokic and the Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center (3 ET, ABC) in another NBA Rivals Week matchup.

Joel Embiid dominated Portland for 32 points and nine rebounds in a win last week.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 31.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.4 apg

Tatum sported Kobe Bryant’s purple “24” armband in Thursday’s game to honor the former Lakers star on the third anniversary of his death. Tatum jumped out the gates firing like Bryant, too, helping the Celtics seize a 15-5 lead just four minutes into the contest on his driving floater. The Boston forward would score just 10 points in the second and third quarters combined, and two points (on 0-for-5 shooting) in overtime. “I feel like we’ve still been playing the right way. We’ve still been playing with a sense of purpose and pace,” he said. “Sometimes, that s— just don’t go in.” It needs to Saturday when Boston closes NBA Rivals week with its third appearance in the showcase, hosting LeBron James and the Lakers.

Jayson Tatum scored 35 points in Thursday's loss to the Knicks.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 31.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 5.3 apg

Welcome back to the Milwaukee lineup and the MVP debate. Antetokounmpo missed five straight games (Jan. 12-21) due to a sore left knee, but returned Monday to lead a 20-point drubbing of the Pistons. He scored 20 of his 29 points in the first quarter on 6-for-6 from the floor before finishing with a team-high 12 rebounds. The former two-time MVP cranked up the heat even more two days later with 33 points and 14 rebounds against a Nuggets team playing without four starters (Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). Antetokounmpo is grinding out a historic 2022-23 campaign, averaging 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists while shooting 50% or better overall. That’s happened just three times previously in NBA history — and not since 1972-73 by Hall of Famer and Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's 33-point performance carries the Bucks past the Nuggets.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 8.4 apg

Dallas needed the W over the Suns on Thursday, but the seemingly fading club has still dropped seven of its last 10 — and that number could grow if Doncic is forced to miss time due to this latest setback. An X-ray performed at the arena came back negative. So that’s good news. But it’s worth noting the Mavericks are 0-5 when the 23-year-old isn’t in the lineup, and all those absences occurred on the second night of a back-to-back set. Doncic’s candidacy resembles the road Jokic navigated last season in winning his second MVP, carrying a Nuggets squad that played all last season without Murray and Porter. So, that’s something to keep in your back pocket when evaluating Doncic’s MVP case.

Luka Doncic torches the Wizards for a game-high 41 points.

The Next Five:

6. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
8. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: unranked)
9. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: unranked)
10. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: unranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz.

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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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