Shaking his head mid-question, coach Michael Malone dismissed any hints of positivity after the Denver Nuggets dropped their fifth straight game Tuesday, by way of a 119-100 drubbing at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Malone interrupted with “no” three times, as the reporter probed for a sliver of optimism.
“There are no silver linings. There are no moral victories. There’s nothing to feel good about,” Malone said. “We’ve lost five games in a row, end of story.”
Denver longs to pen a new chapter to this 2021 novel, one featuring the triumphant return of reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic, when the Nuggets host the Milwaukee Bucks and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on Friday for a nationally televised clash on NBA TV. In the midst of a campaign arguably better than 2020-21, Jokic enters the game averaging 26.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists. But he’s missed Denver’s last three outings due to a sprained right wrist.
Further complicating matters is Denver’s growing list of injuries. Jokic took part in portions of Tuesday’s shootaround ahead of the loss at Portland before the team ultimately decided to sit him. But going into that game, the Nuggets were already missing Jamal Murray (knee), Michael Porter Jr. (back), and Bones Hyland (ankle). Then, P.J. Dozier suffered a torn left ACL, the team confirmed, during the final minute of Tuesday’s opening quarter after a drive to the basket.
So, while mounting losses for the injury-riddled Nuggets certainly amplify Jokic’s significant value, we’d be remiss to not mention the club dropped two straight with the center on the floor to tip off Denver’s current skid. In those defeats, Jokic connected on 25 of 43 from the floor for an average of 32.5 points, 13 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
So, Jokic deservedly maintains the No. 3 spot in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, while Antetokounmpo sneaks into the top five at No. 4. Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan falls out of the upper echelon of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder after a rough outing in Houston on Wednesday. Miami swingman Jimmy Butler slides, too, on the heels of the Heat dropping two of their last three, including Wednesday’s 113-101 loss at Minnesota. Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul crashes the top 5 party at No. 5, having led his squad to an NBA-best 14-game winning streak with 17 points and 12 assists in a 120-115 win at Cleveland.
Atlanta guard Trae Young also joins the MVP conversation with the Hawks riding a six-game streak.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 28.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.8 apg
This battle between the Curry brothers on Wednesday lived up to its billing, with Stephen coming out on top over Seth with a 25-point performance with 10 assists in a game his Warriors trailed the Sixers by 19 points, before winning by 20. Seth Curry deserves props, too, after scoring 17 of his 24 points in the first half. Golden State’s victory over Philadelphia marked just the second time in the last 20 seasons the Warriors trailed by 19 points or more before winning by 20 or more. Stephen Curry (2,924 career 3-pointers) is now just 49 3-pointers shy of tying Ray Allen (2,973) for No. 1 on the all-time list.
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 28.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 5.3 apg
The Nets increased their lead over the rest of the Eastern Conference on Wednesday with a 123-104 victory over the Boston Celtics for their NBA-best eighth road win. Durant poured in 21 points, scoring 10 in the first quarter on the way to passing Allen Iverson for 25th all-time in career points (24,388). Durant is now 117 points away from tying Ray Allen (24,505) for No. 24 on the all-time scoring list. Durant passed Iverson with this shot in the opening quarter. “It means the world,” Durant said. “I dedicated my life to this game at an early age. I watched all of these guys that I’m like passing up. I wanted to be like them.”
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 26.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 6.4 apg
Coach Michael Malone downplays Denver’s injury situation, but a Jokic return should go a long way towards putting the Nuggets back on the right track. Prior to the current skid, Denver hadn’t lost more than two in a row this season. Malone talked about his team playing selfishly in Tuesday’s loss at Portland, and obviously Jokic’s skills as a facilitator could go a long way toward fixing that problem. Considering Jokic participated in parts of Denver’s shootaround ahead of Tuesday’s loss, there’s a decent shot he’s good to go for Friday’s matchup with Milwaukee.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 27.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 5.9 apg
We’ll forgive Antetokounmpo for just now discovering the utter bliss of dipping an Oreo cookie in milk since he played a key role in Milwaukee finishing undefeated on a homestand of at least five games for just the third time in franchise history with Wednesday’s 114-93 win over the Detroit Pistons. When the championship core of Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton take the floor together, the Bucks own a record so far this season of 7-0. Interestingly, going into Friday’s clash against Denver, Antetokounmpo and Jokic are the only two players in the NBA this season averaging 25 points or more, 10 or more rebounds and at least 5 assists.
5. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 9
Season stats: 14.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 10.4 apg
The numbers don’t pop, but the wins and Paul’s impact on them certainly do. Phoenix’s current 14-game winning streak ties for the third-longest in team history, and the Suns’ record of 15-3 ties for the club’s best through 18 games. With the game on the line in Wednesday’s 120-115 win over Cleveland, Paul nailed four free-throws down the stretch to preserve a Phoenix victory. The Suns are now 5-1 this season in games decided by five points or fewer, and Paul is a major reason for that. So, forget about a Finals hangover. Paul and the Suns are the real deal.
The Next Five:
6. Jimmy Butler, Miami Het
7. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
9. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
10. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Paul George, LA Clippers; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.