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It’s always nice to start off the weekend with a Kia MVP Ladder matchup, and Friday’s duel between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant arrives tinged with exciting recent history.
It’s been 203 days since Milwaukee last played at Barclays Center, where it bested the Brooklyn Nets in a Game 7 overtime thriller to close out the Eastern Conference semifinals. This back-and-forth slugfest featured 20 lead changes and 10 ties as Durant sent it to OT on a 23-foot turnaround jumper, with the tips of his KD 14 sneakers barely touching the 3-point line.
An inch further back, and perhaps the Nets own the title of reigning NBA champs.
While Durant ripped Milwaukee for an NBA-record 48 points in that battle, playing all 53 minutes of regulation and overtime, Antetokounmpo poured in 40 to go with 13 rebounds, before Khris Middleton sank the tiebreaking dagger with 40.7 ticks on the clock in the first Game 7 that went to OT in 15 years.
Nobody’s expecting a repeat of this Eastern semis classic when the teams tip Friday on national television (7:30 ET, ESPN), but you can bet on a competitive affair featuring the top two players on this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
The teams opened the season in Milwaukee, and the Bucks won handily by 23, as Durant and Antetokounmpo each put up 32 points.
The Nets and the Bucks enter this contest sitting at second and third, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings, but both teams have experienced recent struggles. Milwaukee is in the midst of a two-game losing streak, as Antetokounmpo sat out of Wednesday’s loss to Toronto due to a non-COVID related illness (he’s listed as probable for Friday), while point guard Jrue Holiday entered the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols on Thursday, joining Grayson Allen, George Hill and Pat Connaughton. The Nets, meanwhile, just snapped a three-game skid, aided by the return of point guard Kyrie Irving, who won’t be eligible to play Friday due to New York’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
As for this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Golden State sharpshooter Stephen Curry continues to slide, while players such as Joel Embiid, LeBron James and Ja Morant keep pushing their way up the ranks.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 27.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 5.9 apg
Given Milwaukee’s COVID-19 (coach Mike Budenholzer entered protocols Wednesday) and injury situation, the Bucks need Antetokounmpo back in the lineup Friday when they face the Nets. Milwaukee is 4-5 this season with Antetokounmpo out of the lineup. Over his last two games before sitting out Wednesday, Antetokounmpo has averaged 33 points on 59% shooting to go with 13 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game. If Antetokounmpo maintains his current level of production, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to average 25-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists in four separate seasons.
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 30.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 5.7 apg
He put up 39 points on Wednesday as Brooklyn fought its way out of a three-game losing streak in a game marked by Kyrie Irving’s season debut. Durant played 41 minutes in the victory, and coach Steve Nash would like to find a way to lessen his minutes. Durant currently leads the NBA in scoring and is tied for second in the league with Trae Young with 15 30-point outings, trailing just LeBron James who has more 30-point nights (16). Durant’s 39 points against Indianapolis on Wednesday tied for his second-highest scoring output of the season, as Brooklyn improved to 10-5 when he racks up 30 points or more.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 25.7 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 7.0 apg
The injury-riddled Nuggets continue to hold on, sitting at .500 behind the production Jokic provides on a nightly basis. Too bad Denver couldn’t capitalize on Jokic’s seventh triple-double (26 points, 21 rebounds, 11 assists) and the 64th of his career Wednesday during a 115-109 loss to the Utah Jazz. Jokic is the only player with multiple 25-20-11 games since the 3-point era (1980), and he’s put together three 20-20 games (the most in the NBA) in his last six outings. But, the depleted Nuggets have dropped two in a row. Jokic is just the fifth player in league annals to produce multiple triple-doubles with 20-plus points, 20-plus rebounds and 10-plus assists in his career, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 9
Season stats: 26.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.2 apg
Embiid tallied his fifth-consecutive 30-point night (31 points) Wednesday at Orlando, a streak that registers as the longest of his career. That’s great for the 76ers because they’re 10-2 this season when Embiid puts up 30 or more. In December, Embiid posted 29.2 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1.5 spg and 1.3 bpg in 13 games. During that span, the big man put together eight double-doubles and scored a season-high 43 points on the way to winning NBA Player of the Month. On the first returns from NBA All-Star voting, Embiid received the third-most votes among the frontcourt players in the East. Well deserved.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 26.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.1 apg
For the Steph superfans, please know that his fall to fifth in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder doesn’t automatically knock him out of the running for the award. He’s very much in the mix. The problem is Curry is fighting through a significant slump (by his standards), not to mention a bruised quadriceps that sidelined him for Thursday’s loss at New Orleans. Over his last two outings, Curry has averaged 11.5 points on 19.5% shooting, including just 11% from 3-point range. Before the loss at Dallas on Wednesday, the last time Curry finished consecutive games with only one made 3-pointer was on Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 of 2014.
The Next Five:
6. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week: No. 8)
7. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Last week: Unranked)
8. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last week: No. 6)
9. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Last week: No. 5)
10. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week: Unranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; James Harden, Brooklyn Nets; Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz.
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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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