Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Harden doing part to lead Rockets out of hole

Reigning MVP reenters mix as Houston battles through

James Harden acknowledged the obvious after the Houston Rockets knocked off LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night at Toyota Center.

“We’re in a hole,” he said of the Rockets’ position in the Western Conference standings.

Harden’s winning Kia MVP campaign of a year ago was bolstered by the Rockets’ season-long assault on the league, a grind that netted them the best record in franchise history and the league, and that coveted home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Just making the playoffs this season is going to take some serious work this time around. The Rockets are still digging out of an early-season tailspin that threatened to destroy what they’ve built with Harden and Chris Paul leading the way.

But if Harden has more of what we saw from him in Thursday night’s showcase performance against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center, both the playoffs and a legitimate run at a second straight MVP are not out of the realm of possibility.

Harden stroked the Lakers for 50 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, the fourth 50-point triple-double of his career. He joins a hallowed short list of Hall of Famers (Elgin Baylor twice, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Richie Guerin) to accomplish that feat.

The Lakers got a triple-dose of Harden’s best, as he closed the show by scoring 11 points in the final five minutes. He didn’t shoot well from beyond the 3-point line (4-for-12) but collected his makes when it mattered post, including a late dagger over LeBron. He also knocked down 18 of his 19 free throw attempts, doing his usual from the foul line.

More important, though, is Harden’s acknowledgement of the dire straights the Rockets are in right now in the Western Conference playoff chase.

They are still chasing the .500 line, and obviously have work to do.

But that “hole” they are in … things can change quickly with more big nights — and wins — from the reigning Kia MVP, who shoves his way back into the mix on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the first time in weeks.

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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. 1

Season stats: 28.4 point, 7.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.4 steals

LeBron and the Lakers were upstaged in Houston Thursday night by an epic performance from James Harden and the Houston Rockets. As frustrated as James and the Lakers were with the way the games was officiated, the bottom line is the Lakers still need another piece to solidify their rotation (hence their reported interest in acquiring Trevor Ariza). LeBron’s ability to lift the Lakers into their current position in the Western Conference standings continues to serve as his most compelling argument for inclusion at or near the very top of anyone’s MVP list. He’s averaging 30.8 points (on .551 shooting, .419 from beyond the 3-point line), 8.4 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals over the Lakers’ past five games. There isn’t much more Lakers coach Luke Walton can squeeze out of his superstar anchor at this point of the season. If the Lakers want to maintain the pace in the playoff chase, the final two games of their current road trip (Charlotte Saturday and Washington Sunday) will require everything LeBron can muster.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.9 steals

Leonard has missed the Raptors’ last two games with a bruised hip and is listed as questionable for tonight’s game in Portland. The Raptors have been so good without Leonard this season (6-1), regardless of the opponent, that it’s easy to poke holes in any MVP argument for him. Back-to-back road wins over the Clippers and Golden State Warriors without your best player does and should make the rest of the league pay attention to just how dangerous these Raptors are this season. But that’s a shortsighted view of not only the impact Leonard has had on this team, as well as the appreciation for the continued growth and development of the deep roster the Raptors bring to the games night after night. Leonard’s value to the Raptors’ regular season grind will pale in comparison to what they’ll ask of him in mid-April and beyond. Masai Ujiri could have maintained the status quo if it was just about owning the best record in the Eastern Conference over the that stretch. He’s banking on a healthy Leonard being the difference, the closer the Raptors need to get to that next level in the postseason. Everything else appears to be in place.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 28.9 points, 5.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals

The hypothetical debates about who would win between Curry’s Warriors and the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-led three-peat Lakers teams is far more entertaining than anything else Curry and the Warriors had going on Wednesday night. He suffered through an ugly 10-point effort in a blowout home loss to the Toronto Raptors, who played without Kawhi Leonard, making just three of his 12 shots (2-for-8 from beyond the 3-point line). The Warriors had won four straight games prior to that thumping, with Curry averaging 32.5 points on .519 shooting from the floor and .456 from distance. That’s the Curry the Warriors have to see in order to go on the tear that Steve Kerr said he felt was coming before the Raptors ran them off of their own floor at Oracle Arena. Tonight’s short trip to Sacramento to face the Kings provides the first opportunity for Curry to get back on track.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 25.9 points, 13.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 blocks

Antetokounmpo was a force (19 points, 19 rebounds, six assists and a block) in Sunday’s impressive road win over the Toronto Raptors, a performance that followed his 22 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals in a home loss the Golden State Warriors. A last-minute scratch (sore neck) in Monday’s win over Cleveland, Antetokounmpo couldn’t shake loose from a well-well-crafted defensive scheme from the Indiana Pacers, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. The Cavaliers will get the Greek Freak’s best counterpunch tonight at Quicken Loans Arena. And they don’t have the defensive framework the Pacers are working with under Nate McMillan. If you want to see Antetokounmpo at his best, just go back and watch him work against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. He was relentless in the face of the Raptors’ defensive pressure and grinder his way to an all-important statement win for the Bucks.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 26.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 blocks

There is more focus these days on what Embiid says about the Sixers than what he does on a consistent basis for the Sixers. Don’t let the big man’s words get in the way of the fact that is indeed the most dominant low-post force in the game. Embiid was critical of his own game more after he failed to score 20 points in three straight games before he sat out in the Sixers’ Dec. 7 win over Detroit, the game Brett Brown decided to rest him (drawing more chatter from Embiid, of course). But the response was what you’d expect from a player who has spent most of this season dominating the competition on both ends of the floor. He scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out three assists and collected two blocks and two steals in Monday’s win over the Pistons and Andre Drummond. And he was back in full MVP form in Wednesday’s surprising home loss to Brooklyn, finishing with 33 points (on 12-for-18 shooting), 17 rebounds and six assists. Indiana’s Myles Turner (tonight at Wells Fargo Center) is next up on Embiid’s big man hit list.

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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, Los Angeles Clippers

10. James Harden, Houston Rockets

And five more: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors; 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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