Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Russell Westbrook, James Harden on the clock for final MVP statements

MVP frontrunners have about two weeks to make their lasting cases for the award

Time is of the essence in any race.

And in the case of this season’s crowded chase for the KIA MVP, the time between now and the end of the NBA regular season — some two weeks — couldn’t be more crucial for all involved.

The Maurice Podoloff Trophy could be won, or lost, based on what transpires between now and April 12.

For projected frontrunners Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden of the Houston Rockets, that means there are two weeks to make competing arguments as to why they are deserving of the most prestigious individual award the game has to offer.

That means each and every matchup, no matter the level of competition, could have a significant impact on who fits where when the dust settles on what has been a remarkable season for the deepest field in the MVP race we’ve seen in years.

That also means every triple-double, every clutch shot, every dramatic win, plays a part in this process. They’ll serve as closing arguments, if you will, for cases these superstars have been making all season.

Westbrook authored one of his finest efforts earlier this week, posting the highest scoring triple-double (57 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) in league history in Wednesday’s overtime win over Orlando.

It was a performance that had it all, the numbers, the dramatics and Westbrook, of course, playing hero for a Thunder team that never seems to let up.

“You just got to want it more than other people,” Westbrook said after the game. “I think for me, every night I don’t think about getting tired. I just go out and keep going, keep going.”

Westbrook’s unwavering belief in himself, and the relentlessness that’s always been a staple of his game, is what’s fueling his campaign on a nightly basis down the stretch of this season.

Whether he acknowledges it or not, and for the most part this season he has refused to indulge, no matter how many times he’s baited, he was made for the chase.

“He never believes that he’s ever out of it or we’re ever out of it, and he plays with an incredible competitive spirit,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “He just plays with unbelievable spirit all the time. He’s got a huge heart, he’s a huge competitor and he finds ways to make things happen.”

Two weeks is all that remains, a limited amount of opportunities to make a defining statement in one of the most compelling competitions in all of sports.

And you better believe, time, as always, is of the essence.

Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:


1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 2

Westbrook has a chance to get his fifth straight triple-double tonight when the Thunder host the San Antonio Spurs. And you know he’s licking his chops at the opportunity. He’s locked in on Oscar Robertson’s NBA record of 41 triple-doubles this season, with 38 and counting following the highest scoring triple-double in league history in Wednesday’s win over Orlando (33.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 11.0 assists in his last five games).

Westbrook produced a fifth straight triple-double (and his 39 of the season) against the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday night.

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Harden has his own opportunity Friday in Oakland, where he’ll face a streaking Warriors team that has won nine straight games and is raging towards the playoffs (and Kevin Durant’s return from injury to join then in their championship hunt).

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Harden refuses to make any excuses, but it’s clear that sore wrist he’s dealing with is having an effect on his game right now. The Rockets have dropped two straight games heading into tonight’s showdown against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. Now is not the time to start sputtering, not with the playoffs so close and MVP ballots due in two weeks. (30.6 points, 11.4 assists, 7.6 rebounds in his last five games).

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Last week: No. 4

Leonard was solid in a win over Cleveland to kick off big boy week, finishing with 25 points, six rebounds and six assists. But he struggled a bit (five turnovers, 7-of-20 shooting) in a loss to Golden State Wednesday. But he’ll get a chance to straighten things out while also trying to slow down triple-double machine Russell Westbrook tonight in Oklahoma City (22.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists in his last five games).

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 3

LeBron passed Shaquille O’Neal for seventh on the all-time scoring list against the Bulls Thursday night, reaching yet another career milestone. But the Cavaliers are reeling right now, having lost six times in their last 10 games. No one wants March to end more than James and the Cavaliers, who are 6-10 with tonight’s home game against Philadelphia up next (23.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists in his last five games).

5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Last week: No. 5

The No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase is there for the taking if Thomas and his Celtics can take care of their business during the final two-plus weeks of the regular season. You can bet on Thomas playing with a heightened sense of urgency, fourth quarter mode at all times, to make sure it happens (29.2 points, 4.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds in his last five games).

6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 7

It took him a while to find it, but Curry has donned his KIA MVP cape of the past two years recently for the Warriors, who have won nine straight games and host the Rockets tonight at Oracle Arena. He was at his best in that epic comeback win over the Spurs Wednesday night, scoring and assisting the Warriors to victory in a hostile environment (25.2 points, 10.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds in his last five games).

7. John Wall, Washington Wizards

Last week: No. 6

The Wizards’ wicked road slate to finish the regular season continues tonight at Utah against a team that’s a mirror image of Wall’s upstart crew. Wall has certainly been up to the challenge, playing some of his best basketball of the season during this current, late-season grind. Clinching the franchise’s first division title since 1979 is more significant than realized, especially for Wall (31.2 points, 10.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds in his last five games).

8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Last week: No. 8

The Jazz have been average lately (5-5 in their past 10 games) and need to be better if they want the fourth spot in the Western Conference playoff chase, which means they need even more from Hayward down the stretch of this season. And with a stout Washington Wizards team in town tonight, he’ll be challenged to do exactly that (22.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists in his last five games).

9. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 9

DeRozan gets to match wits with Indianan Pacers All-Star Paul George tonight at the Air Canada Centre, continuing his late-season march against the best of the best. He’s proved to be more than up to the task, no matter who’s on the other side, during what has turned out to be a revealing season for one of the game’s truly elite wing players (32.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds in his last five games).

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: NR

Adding big man Jusuf Nurkic around the trade deadline was the boost Lillard and C.J. McCollum needed to revive the Trail Blazers’ season and it’s taken this long to do it. Lillard, snubbed yet again for an All-Star nod this season, will get the last laugh by driving his team to the playoffs when they were left for dead earlier this season (24.6 points, 7.2 assists, 5.4 rebounds in his last five games).

Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Next up?

An Inside Look at … Khris Middleton (from an Eastern Conference advance scout):

“When Jabari Parker went down for the season it looked bleak for the Bucks. They were already struggling a little bit and then that bad news hit. But Middleton was coming back at that same time and I don’t know if anyone realized just how important he would be for them down the stretch, but he’s made all the difference in the world for this team. His ability to stretch the floor deep beyond the 3-point line, especially at his size, opens up all sorts of mismatches for (Bucks coach Jason) Kidd to play with. They’ve already got the longest and most athletic roster in the league, and I mean that, they don’t get recognized for that the way they should. And Middleton is a huge part of that. He’s deceptively long and while not exactly an elite athlete in our league, certainly a better athlete than he’s given credit for being. You have him and the Greek Freak, John Henson, the rookie (Thon) Maker and the rest of those guys and they can be a handful, just dealing with them on the hoof. Middleton being a knockdown shooter, though, is what changes the game for them. He’s a 44 percent shooter from distance and shoots it at what, 87 percent from the line? That’s a huge boost for a team that doesn’t really have an abundance of quality shooters on the roster. When he’s added to that mix, they’re a completely different problem to deal with because he really opens the floor up, particularly in the halfcourt, for Giannis to take advantage of you and punish you in and around the basket. We handled them pretty well earlier in the season when Middleton was out. But that changed when he came back.”

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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