Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Harden refuses to fade in award quest

Barrage of epic scoring performances keeps Houston's star at forefront

James Harden had everything fall into place this time last season.

His Houston Rockets were a league-best 48-13 at the end of February 2018 and were running through their competition — including the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.

He was also closing in on his first Kia MVP after years of coming up short in the voting, which had to be a great feeling for Harden — no matter how much he’d deny it publicly.

We all know how it ended for Harden and the Rockets (they ran out of gas in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at home after leading the Warriors 3-2). They lacked the finishing kick needed to win a title.

Harden is showing he’s got that and more in this season’s Kia MVP chase, adding yet another signature effort to an already unbelievable list of accomplishments.

He rallied the Rockets from a 21-point deficit against the Miami Heat on Thursday night, finishing with 58 points and 10 assists — his sixth 50-point game of the season. In doing that, he joins Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only other players to accomplish that feat.

That’s after he ran off 32 straight games with 30 or more points to drag the Rockets from the depths of the West standings to their current position: striking distance for a top-four spot.

He’s definitely one of the most unguardable players this game has ever seen,” retiring Heat superstar Dwyane Wade said after Harden shot a blistering 16-for-32 from the floor, 8-for-18 from deep and a sterling 18-for-18 from the free throw line.

Let all that sink in and then come up with an argument for someone taking the MVP hardware from Harden this season. If your compelling case doesn’t begin with the word “Giannis” and end with the word “Antetokounmpo,” you probably can’t do it.

There’s still plenty of season left for Harden or “The Greek Freak” to create a little separation, with the right finishing kick in this race.

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 36.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals

Anytime you join Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players to do something (six 50-point games in the same season), it warrants special attention. His feat Thursday also put the reigning Kia MVP alongside Tiny Archibald and Russell Westbrook as the only players with three 50-point, 10-assist games in a single season. Bottom line? Harden isn’t conceding anything in this Kia MVP chase, with his finishing kick serving as proof. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is piecing together rotations every night, providing room to manufacture load-management time for his superstar. And Harden, of course, isn’t having it anyway. He made it clear last season that there would be no let up on his part and his latest effort is proof of that. Unlike last season, the Rockets don’t have the added motivation of chasing the league’s best record (and the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs) as motivation. But Harden doesn’t appear to need anything added to his historical quest.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 27 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

Has the grind of this season finally caught up with “The Greek Freak?” Perhaps. He sat out Monday’s win in Chicago with a sore right knee. And he played only 24 minutes in Wednesday’s wild overtime win in Sacramento on a Mike Budenholzer-mandated and enforced minutes restriction. It is shrewd planning by the Bucks’ coach, who understands the kind of load-management routine works for his star (having seen it done for Tim Duncan during his days as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach). Budenholzer is saving Antetokounmpo from his ambitious, 24-year-old self to ensure sure he’ll have the energy and health needed for a deep playoff run. That said, anyone in Los Angeles expecting Antetokounmpo to coast tonight against LeBron James and the Lakers (10:30 ET, ESPN) is dreaming. This is the perfect stage on which to help punctuate a season-long Kia MVP campaign. Granted, Antetokounmpo has already piled up plenty of highlights and statement moments. But spotlight tonight at Staples Center, given the circumstances for the Lakers, will be even brighter than normal.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals

Yet another casualty of the wear-and-tear of the NBA season, George sat out with a sore right shoulder Thursday night in OKC’s home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s the Thunder’s third straight loss and third in four games since the All-Star break. George’s absence was glaring against the Sixers, who also played without their anchor and MVP candidate, Joel Embiid. The Thunder’s margin for error without George was on full display, and it should be noted for the postseason. The chase for playoff positioning, however, is a much more pressing concern for the Thunder. They’ll need George back and rolling if they are going to hold off the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 3 spot in the West. Like other superstars league-wide, George must balance his need for physical breaks with his team’s need to have (one of) its most dynamic players on the floor for the season’s closing weeks.

4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 8

Season stats: 20.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals

A statement effort by the Utah Jazz Thursday night interrupted the Nuggets’ three-game, post-All-Star weekend chase for the top spot in the West. It also served as a reminder of just how tenuous a position Jokic and the Nuggets are in as they try to flip their script from playoff observer last season to West elite this season. Jokic did battle Rudy Gobert to a virtual standstill of elite big men (finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists to Gobert’s 16 points, eight rebounds and four blocks). But the Nuggets’ playoff hopes this season will rest largely on Jokic turning in more efforts like the one he had in Tuesday’s win against Oklahoma City (a near triple-double with 36 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds). Jokic has made it clear that being in the MVP territory is a place he’s not nearly as comfortable in as others on this list. But if the Nuggets are going to finish what they’ve started, they’ll need the big fella to embrace his Kia MVP-ness.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 28.4 points, 5.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals

It’s always a bit surprising to see the greatest shooter in NBA history struggle through an uncharacteristic slump. That’s exactly where he and the Warriors are at on their current road trip. Even when Curry finishes with his normal output – as he did in Thursday’s 103-96 loss to the Orlando Magic — it’s hard to overlook his 3-point shooting woes. He had 33 points, yes, but was 5-for 17 on 3-pointers and went 4-for-14 on 3-pointers in consecutive games against Charlotte and Miami (which Golden State split) before that. These are first-world problems, of course. The Warriors have elite shooters/scorers in Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. But when one of them is out (as Durant was Thursday night) or having an off night, Curry’s importance to the Warriors is magnified. That the Warriors can maintain their status atop the West through all the twists and turns of a fifth straight championship-or-nothing campaign is a testament to the Warriors’ talent. It also speaks to the standard Curry and Co. have established. In short, we’re all just nit-picking where Steph is concerned.

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The Next Five

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

And five more: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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