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Kia MVP Ladder: Reliable Antetokoummpo walks away with our MVP vote

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The top five in the final edition of the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

 

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo carry the Bucks to the NBA title in 2019?

Last week:  No. 1

Season stats:  27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks

In a season filled with drama and turmoil elsewhere, Antetokounmpo starred in the season’s best feel-good story as he and the Bucks ascended to the top of the NBA in Budenholzer’s first season at the helm. “The Greek Freak” and his rise prompted the Bucks’ front office to go all-in on the season, making moves to push forward in an Eastern Conference playoff chase lacking LeBron James for the first time in nearly a decade. Antetokounmpo’s magical all-around work puts him in a category that barely a handful of players in the league can even come close to be included in. Folks in Milwaukee haven’t seen a player of this caliber in the hometown team’s inform since Abdul-Jabbar was collecting MVP hardware and winning a championship along side Oscar Robertson. No offense to Khris Middleton, himself an All-Star this season, but Antetokounmpo doesn’t have the luxury of playing alongside another player of his caliber the way fellow top-five MVP candidates James Harden, Paul George and Stephen Curry do each night.

 

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

 

James Harden dropped 61 points on vs. the Knicks at MSG on Jan. 23.

Last week:  No. 2

Season stats:  36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals

After a rough start to to the season, Harden has led the Rockets on a tear through the West standings and his own personal assault on the NBA’s scoring records. The reigning Kia MVP finished his second straight season with a scoring average north of 30 points (his 36.1 ppg is the highest in the league since Bryant’s 35.4 ppg in ’05-06). Harden has piled up point-rebound-assist numbers this season that no player in league history ever has. The historical nature of the season he crafted has been as impressive as it was unprecedented. And the criticisms of his defensive work, long the area of his game most poked at, isn’t the weakness it’s been in the past. Harden won’t show up on any Kia DPOY ballots, but he’s vastly improved that part of his game. Were it not for Antetokounmpo’s season for the ages, Harden would sit atop this list once again.

 

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

 

Paul George delivered vs. the Jazz in one of his best games of 2018-19.

Last week:  No. 3

Season stats:  28.0 points 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals

George turned in his finest NBA season after a career-altering free-agent decision to stick with the Thunder last summer instead of looking elsewhere (namely Los Angeles). If he needed validation for his choice, George can just run down the list of accomplishments he piled up this season. He finished second in the scoring chase to Harden, led the league in steals, earned a starting nod in the All-Star Game and will likely finish in the top three of the voting for Kia DPOY. He did all of this sharing the load with Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double for the third straight season. Were it not for a nagging shoulder injury that slowed he and the Thunder down late in the season, George might have challenged Harden and Antetokounmpo for one of the top two spots here. But his season-long roll has cemented him as one of the top two-way players in the league.

 

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

 

Stephen Curry lit up the Wizards for a season-high 51 points on Oct. 24.

Last week:  No. 4

Season stats:  27.3 points, 5.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Curry actually saw an uptick in his scoring this season. And although though he didn’t perform at the 50-40-90 shooting level he did during his last Kia MVP season, he’s still tooling around in that neighborhood. The fact that he’s capable of doing that and leading the two-time reigning NBA champions in scoring while a scoring machine like Kevin Durant is on the roster tells you just how potent Curry’s game has become. Curry has persevered through all of the drama that accompanied this season in Oakland (from the Durant-Draymond dust-up early on to the integration of DeMarcus Cousins into the mix), serving as the calming influence during a campaign that proved to be every bit as tough as Warriors coach Steve Ker warned it would be. There’s a reason you rarely see the same group push through the league the way the Warriors have the past five seasons. It takes special, transcendent talents to lead that sort of charge. It takes a player like Curry, who no matter what happens this summer, will remain that figure for the Warriors.

 

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

 

Nikola Jokic delivered a memorable triple-double on Oct. 20 vs. the Suns.

Last week:  No. 6

Season stats:  20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4steals

Jokic has improved so much and so rapidly over the course of his four NBA seasons that he’s shocked its ecosystem. Anyone outside of the Nuggets who claims to have seen this type of season coming from “The Joker” is peddling fake news. Jokic has been a revelation the past two seasons, cashing in on the opportunities his undeniable talent created for him during some transition seasons in Denver. He’s as gifted and skilled a passer as there is in the league right now, regardless of position. He’s a nightly triple-double threat and is improving as a defender (which is perhaps his lone, glaring weakness). It’s rare for a big man in today’s NBA to facilitate for his team the way Jokic does. But kudos to Nuggets coach Mike Malone for constructing an attack that played to strengths of his best and most versatile player. It turned out that what worked best for Jokic is what worked best for the Nuggets, who climbed their way to No. 2 in the West after missing out on the playoffs a year ago on the final night of the regular season. Jokic is a good bet for a first-team All-NBA nod to top it all off.

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The Next Five

6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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About Last Night: Harden’s historic night can’t derail Rockets

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So, in the annals of demoralizing playoff defeats, where does this one rank? 

* You somehow manage to induce your opponent’s best player, the league’s reigning Kia MVP and a newly minted scoring champion — with the league’s highest average in 32 seasons — to brick his first 15 shots, setting a playoff record for futility.

* That same player draws his fourth foul with 20:28 remaining in the game, while his only other teammate who can consistently create for himself and others earns his fifth with 13:26 left. 

* Oh yeah, you’re playing at home, in front of one of the league’s most rabid crowds.

And yet, somehow, with advantages you’d happily pay several months of gameday revenue for as you attempt to dig out of a 2-0 deficit, you … lose?!?!?

Such is the extent of the wounds the Jazz will have to lick before Tuesday’s Game 4 as they dissect how in the world the Rockets were able to escape with a 104-101 victory that, if NBA history is any guide, all but ensures their advancement to the second round at 3-0. 

As great players are wont to do, Harden still had a big impact, finishing with 22 points despite shooting a miserable 3-for-20 from the field. (Not only did he set the aforementioned record for most consecutive misses at any point in a playoff game, his 15.0 shooting percentage was the third-worst of his career when taking at least 15 shots.) 

Harden insisted after the game he had no idea he was shooting that poorly, and his fourth-quarter production backs that up. Attacking the Jazz at every opportunity, he accounted for 22 of Houston’s 30 points in the period, scoring 14 and assisting on eight more, as the Rockets held on against virtually all odds.

His first bucket? A dunk with less than eight minutes remaining:

He followed with a pair of 3-pointers, including a back-breaker at 1:11 after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell cut Utah’s deficit to one with a 3 of his own. 

“That’s James Harden,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He’s that good at the end. You give yourself a very small margin (if the game is close).”

Combined with great defense, good ball security, ample support (led by 18 points from the foul-plagued Chris Paul, five other Rockets scored in double-figures) and a nightmarish shooting night for Mitchell (18 missed field goals, one more than Harden), it was juuuuuuuuuust enough for the Rockets to escape.  

“Just keep shooting,” Harden said of his mentality. “My job is to go out there and produce and be in attack mode. Nothing changes (at 0-15).”

Said Paul, “At the end of the day, it’s win the game. It doesn’t matter what he shot. We won the game.”

 

Gut check in the Alamo City

Just like championship runs have become a rite of early summer in San Antonio, so have early exits in Denver. When the Nuggets even make the playoffs at all, which they did this season for the first time since 2013.

That was the last of 10 straight postseason appearances for the Nuggets. All but one resulted in first-round exits, with two of those coming after they squandered home-court advantage in the first two games.

So it came with a strong sense of déjà vu, perhaps even inevitability, that the Nuggets promptly stumbled out of the gates once more with a 101-96 loss to the Spurs in the opening game of their first-round series. That put them in the unenviable position of needing to win their first game of any kind in San Antonio since 2012 – a stretch of 13 straight losses – and their first in the playoffs since 2007, when the team was anchored by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.

Attempt No. 1 failed with a 10-point loss in Game 3 that wasn’t that close. But with a 3-1 deficit staring them in the face, the Nuggets found some nerve, shaking off both their woeful history and a sluggish start to outscore the Spurs by 26 over the final three quarters for a commanding 117-103 victory in Game 4.

Even with home-court advantage restored, they still have plenty of work to do if they hope to advance. But the maturity and composure displayed by Nikola Jokic and company on Saturday indicate these Nuggets, unlike so many of their predecessors, could actually be up for that challenge.

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76ers’ crown jewel shines in Game 4

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BROOKLYN  There were 256 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team this season. For only one of the 256 could you say the following: His team was at least five points per 100 possessions better offensively and at least five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.

That player was Joel Embiid.

The additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris this season have given the Sixers a ridiculously talented starting lineup. And with Embiid missing Game 3 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the rest of that lineup took care of business.

But Embiid remains the Sixers’ “crown jewel,” as head coach Brett Brown has called him. He’s a matchup problem for every team in the league and the difference maker for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.

In Game 4 on Saturday, the Nets just couldn’t match up, Embiid was the difference, and the Sixers came away with a 112-108 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.

Embiid’s line: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in less than 32 minutes. He was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.

 

The 76ers lead 3-1 after their road comeback over the Nets in Game 4.

The Nets were one of five teams that took more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season. But they also led the league with 30.9 points per game scored on drives. The Nets’ biggest offensive weapons in this series have been Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, guards who can attack the rim by exploiting the Sixers’ lack of quickness on the perimeter.

Brooklyn was successful at the rim against Embiid on a few occasions, with both LeVert and Dinwiddie scoring over him. He also had a close-up look at a Jarrett Allen dunk when LeVert drove at him and dished off. But while the Philadelphia defense did bend at times, it never broke when Embiid was on the floor. And when Jared Dudley was ejected for shoving Embiid early in the third quarter, Brooklyn lost the only player who could possibly play center and make Embiid pay for hanging near the rim.

“I know these guys are going to go at me, because they want me to retaliate,” Embiid said about the skirmish that started when he hit Allen with what was deemed a flagrant foul. “So I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don’t react. I could have reacted, but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley. I just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”

On defense, his job was to help the Sixers get stops. And with Embiid on the floor, Brooklyn scored just 62 points on 71 possessions. With him off the floor, the Nets scored 46 points on just 33 possessions.

On the other end, Brooklyn just couldn’t deal with Embiid in the paint. When they tried to front him in the post, the Sixers flashed a man to the foul line and got the ball to Embiid with high-low action. When he was doubled in the post, he found the open man, often Ben Simmons cutting to the rim after the Nets sent help off him.

When Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter, he didn’t settle, instead backing down into the post where he could score more easily or draw an extra defender (or two). In this series, Embiid has shot 22-for-35 (63 percent) in the paint and 3-for-14 (21 percent) outside it. 

“I’m just trying to live in the paint,” he said. “They’re going to have to double-team me. I figured that. They’re going to have to send two or three guys. If they’re going to guard me in single coverage, I’m going to dominate. And then I’m also going to make the right pass. That’s my job. We found it.”

 

Joel Embiid goes off for 31 points in Game 4.

With the Sixers down one with 25 seconds left in the game, the Sixers looked to Embiid, with Allen fronting him in the post. Joe Harris crashed from the weak side and knocked the ball out of Embiid’s hands, but Embiid beat Traveon Graham to the ball and, with one hand, got the ball to an open Mike Scott (Harris’ man) in the corner for what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left.

The goal in NBA offense is to find an advantage and use it to exploit the defense and get an open shot. Embiid is that advantage for the Sixers whenever he walks on the floor. And with him on the floor on Saturday, the Sixers scored 80 points on 69 possessions. With him off the floor, they scored just 32 points on 35 possessions.

“He was dominant,” Brown said. “There were times you can see that it’s still raw, and there are some decisions that he probably would like to have over again. But given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance. What more can you say?”

Embiid remains the most important piece to the Sixers’ puzzle. Really, when it comes to competing with the best teams in the league, he is the puzzle.

The question is just how much they’re going to have him going forward. For every game in this series, Brown hasn’t known until shortly before tip-off whether or not he’s going to have his most important player. Embiid was clearly hobbled in Game 1, better in Game 2, absent in Game 3, and dominant in Game 4.

Maybe things are trending in the right direction. And maybe Embiid’s status will remain a question from here on out.

The Sixers’ ability to compete for an Eastern Conference championship hangs in the balance.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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From retread to ‘godsend’, Bogut finds new life with Warriors

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Once his body healed, he chose to return to the game to success with the Sydney Kings. He was league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 11.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 blocks in 30 games. Besides basketball, Bogut began raising a family and the balance was beneficial to him.

“I feel good,” Bogut said. “Probably more mentally as well. Just felt burnt out mentally with the grind of the NBA season for 13 seasons straight. It was good to just get home and get back to some normality, playing in Australia once or twice a week. And then obviously having a family now. Family kind of changes my perspective of what should be stressful and what shouldn’t be and what’s important in life.”

The urge to return to the States simmered inside him, however, especially since he wouldn’t need to trudge through an entire NBA season. Bogut says that’s unlikely to happen again, no matter how well he plays from here. Still, he wants to make the most of the next two months, assuming the Warriors are still in business.

“Leaving and coming back makes you appreciate this much more,” he said. “Having another opportunity to play with the best players in the world is great. I probably appreciate it much more now. When you’re stuck in the moment as I was the first time around, I don’t think I enjoyed it and been appreciative of it as I should’ve been.”

 

With Kevin Durant at the top of his game, the Clippers had no chance in Game 3.

From a numbers standpoint, the Warriors didn’t need Bogut, even though Damian Jones, the starting center at the season’s onset, is out with a torn pectoral muscle. Not only was Cousins healthy, but Kevon Looney showed growth and a new confidence in his mid-range shot. Looney, however, is more of a power forward, and the Warriors had nothing to lose by bringing in Bogut, a favorite of Kerr thanks to his instincts and intelligence.

“Andrew is a brilliant basketball mind,” Kerr said. “He’s one of those guys when you call a play or teach him a play, he gets it right away. He understands where all five players should be and he understands why you’re running the play. He just has beautiful feel for the game. He sees and feels the game like Andre (Iguodala) does, only at the center position. His voice is so prominent, when you’re down on the floor and our team is on defense, you can hear Boges barking out commands, barking out signals, letting guys know where they need to be, like he’s like a quarterback out there.”

While Cousins was obviously a productive player, he often struggled in the pick and roll and has never been known for defense. Those are areas of strength for Bogut and it gives Kerr more options with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, shooters who are deadly when sprung off picks. Also, with the emphasis on half-court play in the playoffs, Bogut’s 7-foot stature becomes an asset near the rim on both ends.

“This is the reason we signed him,” Curry said. “We never wanted to talk about it and want to admit of the possibility. But it was to shore up that center position in case of injury. It’s how it has played out. We have to be ready to adjust and win basketball games.”

The Clippers don’t offer much resistance in the middle. Yet if the playoff seeds hold true and the Warriors see the Rockets in the second round, Bogut will be valuable against Clint Capela, who is active offensively in the pick and roll.

“I just want to be a positive to the team,” Bogut said. “They don’t need me to score, obviously. But whatever they need, really. I can be a voice defensively, control the paint and do what they need me to do. I feel I fit in pretty well. Not a whole lot has changed in the system and the flow of the game since my first time here. Hopefully as an older guy who’s played around the world I can use my voice a little more and get guys going.”

One month into this reunion, Bogut and the Warriors have discovered they need each other more than either imagined.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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