Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Thunder doing just fine behind their new superstar duo

Westbrook, George have Thunder sizzling after an 0-4 start

In a suddenly wild and raucous fight for the top spot in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George have positioned themselves as true players.

An 0-4 start to 2018-19 and Westbrook’s arthroscopic knee surgery in September distorted the fact that the Thunder’s marquee stars, fast friends after just one season together, have become one of the league’s most dynamic duos.

They’ve led the Thunder out of that hole and into the thick of the chase for the West’s top spot, posting a league-best 16-3 record since Oct. 28. They’ve found a groove and, in turn, have fueled a revival in Oklahoma City that makes the Thunder one of the NBA’s most dangerous teams.

OKC is taking another stab at a 1-2 punch, one that Westbrook and Kevin Durant were as teammates for years — but this time with a much longer shelf life on the partnership. Westbrook, after all, was the host and emcee at the party last summer where George announced he was sticking with the Thunder in free agency.

And unlike the uneasy give-and-take that always seemed to color the Durant-Westbrook dynamic, there’s an easy chemistry already between Westbrook and George, who are both featured prominently in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

OKC’s thrilling comeback win Wednesday in Brooklyn provided a fine example.

On a night when Westbrook logged his 108th career triple-double (21 points, 17 assists and 15 rebounds) to pass Jason Kidd on the all-time list, it was George who closed the show. He scored 25 of his season-high 47 points in the fourth quarter as Westbrook went scoreless and played set-up man for George’s late-game heroics. Westbrook got the assist on the game-sealing 3-pointer George nailed in the final seconds, capping a 6-for-13 night on 3-pointers for George.

George’s virtuoso performance (he also had 15 rebounds, four assists, a block and just two turnovers) — the kind Westbrook has authored so routinely over the past two seasons — served as another reminder that the Thunder once again have two of the NBA’s best two-way players.

Missing this time, however, is the chatter about whose team it is and who is the real alpha on the roster.

Westbrook is once again averaging a triple-double (22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10 assists per game) while George leads the Thunder in scoring (24.3 ppg) and minutes (34.8) to go along with 8.1 rpg and 4.3 apg.

They appear to be a much better fit personality-wise than Westbrook and Durant ever were. There’s no tug-of-war, real or imagined, or a power struggle on the horizon.

For OKC’s duo and their constantly improving supporting cast, the only thing on the horizon is the endless potential of one of the NBA’s most dangerous tandems.

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

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1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.4 point, 7.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.3 steals

James is wise to dismiss the criticism, veiled or otherwise, from Kevin Durant and others trying to poke holes in his body of work with the Lakers. He’s been nothing short of brilliant in powering the Lakers out of their lottery abyss and into the thick of things in the Western Conference. And make no mistake, if there are indeed media “fan boys” trumpeting LeBron’s game these days, it’s warranted. And if you don’t believe it, ask San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich what he thinks after witnessing LeBron’s 20-point fourth quarter destruction of his team Wednesday night at Staples Center. LeBron’s 42 points (on 15-for-24 shooting and 4-for-7 on 3-pointers), six assists, five rebounds and two steals were the latest reminder he’s there to provide whatever the Lakers need in their resurgence. LeBron is wise to ignore all the outside chatter … he’s got more important business to tend to these days, anyway.

No. 2 Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 30.2 points, 5.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Well, that didn’t take long. Three games was all it took for Curry to dive right back into a rhythm for the two-time defending-champion Warriors. For anyone wondering how Curry could maintain a spot in the top 10 on this list while missing 10 straight games with a groin injury, go back and watch what he’s done in the three games since he returned (33.3 ppg, 53.4 percent shooting, 54.5 percent 3-point shooting, 5.6 rpg, 4.3 apg and 1.3 spg). The Warriors, a .500 team without Curry, have quickly stabilized their situation with him back on the floor. As usual, he’s creating an on-court dynamic that only he can for Golden State. Now you know why the Warriors didn’t sweat their struggles, on and off the court, knowing that the remedy for what ailed them was coming. He scored 42 points (and nine 3-pointers), grabbed nine rebounds and dished out seven assists in Wednesday’s Finals “rematch” in Cleveland, proving once again that the Curry fear factor for foes is as profound as ever.

3. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 26.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals

For a man of so few words, Leonard has had no problem making his presence felt in Toronto this season, particularly in marquee matchups. The Philadelphia 76ers found out firsthand Wednesday when Leonard and the Raptors took the Sixers apart in a matchup of teams that could very well see each other in the 2019 East finals. Leonard dominated everywhere, shredding the Sixers for 36 points, nine rebounds and five steals. It’s crazy to think some people actually doubted Leonard and questioned whether or not he could return to form after his nine-game final season with the Spurs in 2017-18. Leonard has been nothing short of spectacular in the Raptors’ matchups against other contenders. And he’s embraced the individual challenges as well, constantly going head-to-head with the best of the best. What’s the difference for these Raptors, who ended last season atop the Eastern Conference standings and find themselves there again? It’s a healthy and determined Leonard.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 27.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 blocks

The Bucks took care of business Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons. But Antetokounmpo, who spent the past month at the top of this list, turned in one of his more pedestrian performances this season. He only took 12 shots, making half of those and finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal. There was nothing particularly freaky about his effort. Perhaps he is still smarting from being on the wrong end of the highlight Knicks guard Mario Hezonja delivered. That facial and step-over irked Antetokounmpo and he vows to avenge it when the opportunity presents itself. Then again, maybe the big fella was due for an off night after posting eight straight double-doubles before dealing with the Pistons’ big man duo of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The fact is, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will need to manufacture more production from the other members of his frontcourt rotation on those rare nights when Antetokounmpo isn’t operating at his absolute best. And the Bucks will need him to take his game to that next level tonight with the Golden State Warriors making their lone trip to Fiserv Forum this season (9:30 ET, ESPN).

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2 blocks

Embiid’s reputation as one of the league’s preeminent trash talkers extends to more than just the competition or opposing fans. Embiid isn’t afraid to turn his ire on the man in the mirror. And after he struggled mightily Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors, he summed up his own performance without any sugar coating. “I sucked,” he told reporters after barely reaching double-digit scoring with 10 points (on 5-for-17 shooting) and finished a game more than 10 points below his scoring average for the third straight time. Sure, he grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out five assists and blocked two shots. But he also turned the ball over four times and got into foul trouble. Raptors big man Jonas Valancuinas used his size and strength to bother Embiid. And while Jimmy Butler (38 points), J.J. Redick (25 points) and Ben Simmons (11 assists, 10 rebounds, eight points) all played up to the moment, Embiid came up woefully short, admittedly playing like, “trash for the past few games.” Still, the Sixers are trying to find their way in a competitive race for top four spots in the East.

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The Next Five

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

9. Tobias Harris, LA Clippers

10. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

And five more: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; 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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