Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Ja Morant making his move into MVP mix

Memphis phenom Ja Morant is putting on a serious late-season Kia MVP push in our latest review of the award's top contenders.

A string of scintillating performances has Ja Morant’s game resounding in the Kia MVP chase.

Ja Morant shook off a Jayson Tatum takeover Thursday at TD Garden, choosing instead to focus on how Memphis might benefit from the experience gleaned in a 120-107 loss to Boston.

“Obviously, [it’s] a plus to be able to go into that and learn from it right now instead of later once we get to the playoffs,” Morant said. “[We’ve] just got to study the film, see what we can get better at, learn from it, and when that time comes to play this team again or any other team who plays similar, be ready.”

Tatum celebrated his 24th birthday Thursday by scoring 21 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter of a slugfest between two of the NBA’s brightest young stars. Morant started 0 of 6, finishing with just eight points in the opening half before churning out 30 points in the second half, marking the second time he’s put up 30 points or more this season in one half.

Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum did not disappoint in their showdown Thursday.

Morant is now averaging 45.3 points over his last three games and checks in at No. 5 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

“I thought both those guys played high-level basketball tonight,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of Tatum and Morant. “Obviously, Tatum took over in the fourth quarter. Ja took over in the fourth quarter. That’s what we need [Morant] to do for us, but we’ve got to do a better job of getting stops.”

In helping the Celtics improve to 21-8 since Jan. 2 while seizing sole possession of fifth in the East, Tatum hit 9 of 13 in the fourth quarter, while Morant shook off his shaky first half with 14 points in the final frame on 6 of 8 from the field and 2 of 3 from deep.

Morant entered the loss to the Celtics having scored a franchise-record 98 points over his previous two games, including a career-high 52 points Monday against San Antonio on the heels of Saturday’s 46-point night in a win over Chicago. Along the way, Morant blessed the world with plenty of viral highlights like these. The second highlight in that clip generated 42.1 million views on Instagram (and counting) according to the NBA, which announced that Morant’s halftime buzzer-beater was the most-watched video on that social media platform in league history.

Two days after dropping a franchise-best 46 points, Ja Morant scores 52 (with a must-see poster jam) in a win vs. San Antonio.

Morant also gave us this nice lefty finish on the lob against the Celtics, but we’d be remiss to not show you Tatum’s highlights since he’s also among the players on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

The top five remains the same outside of the addition of Morant, who replaces Stephen Curry after the Warriors dropped their third straight Thursday against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. Although Joel Embiid continues to gain steam (especially after the addition of James Harden), Nikola Jokic maintains the top spot because he continues to do more with less for a Denver team that is 8-2 in its last 10 games.

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: 25.4 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg

Game Recap: Nuggets 115, Kings 110

Oklahoma City snapped Denver’s winning streak at six games Wednesday with Jokic committing six turnovers and shooting 0 of 4 from deep. Jokic did churn out his 50th double-double (22 points, 16 rebounds), marking the third time in his career he’s tallied 50 or more double-doubles. Strangely, he’s 0 for 10 from 3-point range over his last three outings. We’ve pointed out that Jokic is doing more with less than the other MVP candidates, but help could be coming with Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray progressing well in their respective rehabilitation programs. Porter is the most likely to return this season.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 29.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 4.4 apg

Joel Embiid dominated vs. New York and finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds.

Early returns show promise, but the Embiid pairing with Harden is bound to face some adversity at some point, right? It’s better to experience that and work out the kinks now than in the postseason. But so far, so good. Embiid dropped his 30th double-double of the season against the New York Knicks on Wednesday with 27 points and 12 rebounds to go with four assists and two blocks. Embiid also made the most of his opportunities at the foul line, sinking 11 of his 13 attempts after knocking down 23 of 27 from the line Sunday against the Knicks.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 29.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 6.0 apg

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks came up big late in a comeback win against Miami.

Milwaukee has registered back-to-back wins after dropping four of its previous five games. In the win against Miami on Wednesday, the Bucks trailed by 14 points with 7:12 left to play and outscored the Heat 21-6 down the stretch. In racking up his 34th double-double, Antetokounmpo scored 14 of his 28 points in the final frame. Antetokounmpo and Jokic remain the only two players in the league averaging 25-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists this season. After six straight games at home, Milwaukee hits the road for the first time since Feb. 10 for Friday’s matchup at Chicago.

4. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 28.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.1 apg

DeMar DeRozan was named Kia NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February.

We expected DeRozan to crank up another strong run after Miami snapped his streak of 10 straight games of 30 points or more on Monday, but he’s put up 18 and 22 points in Chicago’s last two games —  both losses — as the Bulls have dropped three in a row. The league announced DeRozan as Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February after he averaged 34.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists. DeRozan, 32, played 38 minutes in Thursday’s loss to Atlanta coming off 13 games in February in which he averaged 38.5 minutes. In the 55 games before the All-Star break, DeRozan averaged 35.6 minutes.

5. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Season stats: 27.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.6 apg

Take a look at Ja's top buckets so far this season!

Morant returns to the top five for the first time since November. But this time, it feels different because the race remains so close so late in the season and the Grizzlies guard continues to flourish along with this young team. Yes, Memphis suffered a setback against the Celtics. But it’s only a matter of time before the Grizzlies move past Golden State for the No. 2 spot in the West. The must-watch Grizzlies play in seven more nationally televised games from now until the end of the regular season, including twice over the next week.

The Next Five:

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)

7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Last week’s ranking: No. 5)

9. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 4)

10. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last week’s ranking: unranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.

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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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