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Milwaukee lost the game, but many sensed what was to come.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had just dropped 42 points in Game 2 of a 118-108 loss to Phoenix in the 2021 NBA Finals, and as the hair-dryer-hot air hung low in the night sky outside the Footprint Center, you walked away feeling as if the forward had just discovered how unstoppable he truly is.
From there, we know the story: an average of 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists per game on the way to capturing his first title, while becoming the unanimous winner of the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award.
Antetokounmpo’s 47-piece against Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday brought about a similar feeling. No, he won’t crack the top five in this week’s Race to the Kia MVP Ladder, but Antetokounmpo just put us all on notice that he’s coming to stake a claim.
“Moving forward, I just want to be aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said after helping the shorthanded Bucks snap a two-game skid with a 109-102 win over the Lakers. “I think I’m at my best when I’m aggressive. Hit first, create that contact, get in the paint, draw attention, roll hard.
“Rebound the ball for your teammates, make the right play, talk to your teammates, put your hand around a teammate if he’s not feeling as good. So, that’s what coach [Mike Budenholzer] wants me to do. That’s what I want to do. I’ve got to do a little bit of everything.”
We won’t get into the nuts and bolts of what transpired between Antetokounmpo and the Lakers (as colleague Steve Aschburner covered here). We’ll just point out that Antetokounmpo became the fifth player over the last 20 seasons to produce 45 points or more on 75% shooting from the field (18 of 23) and 75% from long range (3 of 4).
“He made it look easy tonight,” said Kris Middleton, who made his return Wednesday after missing eight games. “When I looked up, I didn’t realize he had 19 already early in the second quarter. [He] just made it look easy; got to his spots, was patient, didn’t necessarily try to force his way through too many guys. If he saw an extra body, he tried to find the open man. He was just great as far as just picking his spots, getting to his spots, being comfortable and being just him, his best version of himself.”
That type of performance from Antetokounmpo is what Milwaukee needs as the roster rounds back into shape. A combination of injuries and illness have resulted in a 7-8 start for the defending champions, which have used nine combinations of starters so far. Guard Donte DiVincenzo (ankle) and center Brook Lopez (back) remain out, while Jrue Holiday continues to work his way back after missing six games earlier in the season due to an ankle injury.
“We definitely need to [string together some wins],” Middleton said. “We definitely started way slower than we all had to do, but it has happened. We’ve got to figure out a way to get out of this rut. Tonight was a nice start.”
Milwaukee can thank Antetokounmpo for that.
As for the top of the Race to the Kia MVP Ladder, Stephen Curry supplants Kevin Durant at No. 1 after Tuesday’s dominant performance at the Barclays Center, while Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan moves to No. 4 after a couple of strong outings — including a head-to-head matchup with Paul George — in Los Angeles on back-to-back nights to start out the week. Meanwhile, Miami’s Jimmy Butler takes the No. 5 spot, after pouring in 30-plus points in two straight games since his return from injury, including this four-steal gem in a win Thursday over the Washington Wizards.
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. 2
Season stats: 29.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 6.5 apg
Curry is one of the main reasons Golden State is the only team in the league to score at least 100 points in every game this season. The Warriors’ 15 straight 100-point games to start the season ranks as the longest streak for the squad since starting 2015-16 with 24-consecutive 100-point games, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Defensively, Curry had logged at least one steal in seven consecutive games (including multiple steals in five of those contests). Curry dropped a cool 20 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter Thursday night as part of a 36-8 closing run in Golden State’s 104-89 win over Cleveland.
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 28.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.9 apg
We’ll focus way too much attention on what transpired against the Warriors on Tuesday, and how Durant finished 0 of 8 in the third quarter of that game, without considering how valuable Durant truly is to the Nets. Of the league’s top 10 scoring leaders going into Thursday night’s games, Durant (34.7 minutes per game) ranked fifth. Already without Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn is also missing Nic Claxton, Paul Millsap and Joe Harris. Durant has scored 30 points or more in four of his last seven outings, and he enters Friday’s game against Orlando just 29 points shy of surpassing Allen Iverson (24,368) for 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 26.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 6.4 apg
Started out the week with a season-high 35 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in Monday’s loss at Dallas, and averaged 28.3 points, 14.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists in his three games prior to Thursday’s clash with Philadelphia. Jokic is currently tied with Larry Bird at No.8 all time in triple doubles (59), and it’s worth noting that Denver owns a home record of 32-4 when the Joker puts together a triple double. The Nuggets took it on the chin Thursday against the Sixers, but Jokic had racked up 27 points, six rebounds and five assists by halftime.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 26.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 apg
At least for two days, DeRozan looked like the king of LA with blistering performances in back-to-back outings on Sunday and Monday against the Clippers (35 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and the Lakers (38 points, six assists) to run up his total of games with 30 points or more to five. In Wednesday’s loss at Portland, DeRozan connected on his 6,500th career shot in addition to tallying his 880th career steal. DeRozan and Zach LaVine have combined to score 60 points or more in a game four times this season – all road outings – with the Bulls winning three of those matchups.
5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 24.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.5 apg
Sat out of three games from Nov. 11 to Nov. 15 due to a sprained ankle, but Butler returned like he had never left Wednesday against New Orleans, and blessed the Pels with a triple-double (31 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds). If you thought that was a fluke, Butler led Miami to its fourth-straight win Thursday, scoring 32 points on 11 of 19 from the field while drilling all 10 of his free throws. This team has held its last three opponents to fewer than 100 points, and Butler’s fingerprints are all over the Heat’s last two showings on that end.
The Next Five:
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
7. Paul George, LA Clippers
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
9. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
10. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; Rudy Gobert, 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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