Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Second straight MVP well within Harden's reach

Reigning MVP putting on historic encore

Mike D’Antoni was a year early.

When he proclaimed James Harden as the “best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” it was before the Houston Rockets’ star had won his first Kia MVP, before Harden put the finishing touches on a stellar campaign that saw him lead the Rockets to a franchise-record for wins, the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs and a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals on their home floor at Toyota Center.

A year later, though, and the coach’s words seem more prophetic than controversial. Harden has spent the time between the initial comment and D’Antoni’s confirmation of his original statement living up to every bit of the hype.

“Nothing’s happened since then to change my mind,” D’Antoni told reporters in Memphis before Harden went nuclear — his 57 points weren’t enough to rally the Rockets back from a huge deficit — in a loss to the Grizzlies.

Harden’s dizzying and dazzling array of accomplishments this season have been well-documented here since he lifted the Rockets on his shoulders after a rocky start and drove them back into the top four playoff mix in the rugged Western Conference.

A night earlier, in a win over Atlanta, Harden cemented his next-level scoring greatness by becoming the first player to score 30 or more points against every other team in the league in a season, joining Michael Jordan (1986-87) on that extremely short list.

Just so we’re clear on what Harden is doing for an encore to his MVP-winning season, he became the third player to record multiple 50-point game against the same opponent in a season over the past 30 seasons, joining Jordan, of course, and Kobe Bryant.

He also notched his seventh 50-point game of the season, becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to record a 50-point game in five straight months, putting himself on the super short list alongside Wilt Chamberlain.

It’s just further proof that D’Antoni, and the legions of folks on the Harden bandwagon, have plenty to crow about where the bearded one is concerned. Haden’s late-season work is also the latest salvo in his journey to what could wind up being a second straight Kia MVP.

With just three weeks to go in this regular season, he’s locked into a tight race with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo for the No. 1 spot in the minds of most.

But what is perhaps most important is the mental and emotional space Harden says he’s occupying these days as the Rockets prepare for a a playoff charge to finish what he says they started last season.

Harden insists he’s not concerned about more individual hardware or glory, especially with a bigger prize in his sights.

“I always have fun hooping,” Harden said earlier this week when I asked him if this is the most fluid his game has ever been and if this is the most fun he’s ever had simply playing the game. “Just with the space I’m in, I’m very, very comfortable and I’m just out here playing free and finding ways to impact the game, putting my stamp on and my footprints on the game. I’m 10 years in now. The only thing I can really do now is enjoy it, have fun with it and just try to take it game for game and be the best that I can be.”

The best ever, scoring it at least, D’Antoni has ever seen.

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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: 36.1 points, 7.7 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals

Harden and the Rockets host the surging Spurs tonight (8 ET, NBA League Pass) in an important game for playoff positioning for both teams. The Rockets have a chance to chase down the No. 3 seed, if they can finish strong. If Harden keeps playing the way he has, that shouldn’t be a problem. He’s been a nightmare for the Spurs, averaging 35.0 points on 52 percent shooting against them this season. The Rockets cannot afford to squander any more of Harden’s monster regular season efforts the way they did Wednesday’s 57-point outing in a loss in Memphis. The one benefit for the Rockets is Harden’s relentless grind. While “load management” is a phrase you hear often this time of year associated with star players headed for the playoffs, it’s simply not a part of Harden’s vocabulary. He doesn’t believe in holding anything back and said the Rockets have too much to play for to ease up now. So expect plenty of fireworks from Harden down the stretch of the season.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 27.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

The injury hits just keep on coming for the Greek Freak and the Bucks. First it was Malcolm Brogdon (foot), who is out for six to eight weeks. And now Nikola Mirotic (finger), who could miss weeks, though Mike Budenholzer disputed the reports that he could be out as many as four weeks. If Antetokounmpo hadn’t staked the Bucks to such a roust cushion in the standings, there might be cause for concern in Milwaukee down this final stretch of the season. Instead of panic, there should be a sense of understanding that these bumps and bruises are a part of any NBA season and the reason you operate at a high level from the top of the roster on down is to weather times like this. Antetokounmpo has to worry about making sure his own body is refreshed and recharged for what’s to come. He’s nursing a sprained right ankle of his own that has cost him the Bucks’ past to games. The absence of five rotation players will test any team, even one that has performed at the ridiculously high level the Bucks have all season. Antetokounmpo will have to crank it back up if he wants to finish on top of this list while also making sure the Bucks keep their spot atop the standings.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.8 points, 5.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals

The clearest sign that Curry’s operating at that truly galactic level that only he and a select few others in the league can, is that he’s impacting games positively regardless of if he’s having a great shooting night or not. So profound is Curry’s impact on what the Warriors do, he changes the dynamics for both teams just by being on the court and a threat to light it up offensively. Now it certainly helps when he goes off the way he did Tuesday against Minnesota, when he scored 36 points and drained eight of his 14 shots from deep as he and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson led the way. But he can control the action in other ways to, as he did Thursday night with his 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a home win over the Indiana Pacers. Finding the right balance hasn’t been much of an issue for Curry, even with all of the bodies going in and out of Steve Kerr’s playing rotation this season. The fact that Curry doesn’t have to push it every single night bodes well for the Warriors’ long-term prospects as well. They know what is needed from the two-time Kia MVP in the coming weeks and months. Even better is that Curry knows it as well.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 8

Season stats: 27.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks

Perhaps Embiid is right. When healthy, he might very well be the most “unstoppable player in the league.” Look at his performance this season when healthy enough to be on the floor. There is no physical match for the Sixers’ big man, who plays all over the floor on both ends at the highest level. The load management break he took out of All-Star Weekend (sore knee) was a much-needed break for a player still trying to put together a full season of action. But the way he’s played since returning has been jaw-dropping. The Sixers have won six straight, including statement wins over Boston and Milwaukee in their last two games. Embiid asserted hid dominance in both contests. He wore the Celtics out Wednesday night with 37 points, 22 rebounds, four assists and a block. He was just as good in Sunday’s win in Milwaukee, going for 40, 15, six and a block. So the next time Embiid shouts about being the most unstoppable player in the game, he might be right. He’s certainly on the right path to living up to all of the hype, self-generated and otherwise.

5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.2 points 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals

With the Thunder reeling right now, losers of four straight games, George and Russell Westbrook will be the guys who have to provide the solutions. The schedule does them no favors tonight, as they travel to Toronto to take on a Raptors team (7:30 ET, NBA TV) that has won two straight and remain hot on the trail of the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. George’s individual game hasn’t been immune to the Thunder’s recent struggles, by the way. He’s shooting just 38.2 percent from the floor in his last 10 games, 32.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line. The concerns folks have had about the Thunder all season are bubbling back up to the surface now just weeks before the playoffs begin. Are they more than just their dynamic duo? And if not, can they really be anything more than a short-timer in the playoffs working solely off of the fuel George and Westbrook provide? A tough road win in Toronto could go a long way in calming down some of these concerns, at least for a day or two.

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The Next Five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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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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