NBA

MVP Ladder: Nets superstar Kevin Durant heats up, rises to the top

Even after Brooklyn's 2-3 start without Kyrie Irving, most pundits never wavered on declaring the Nets this season's favorite to win it all.

Surely, Kevin Durant's presence played a role in that.

As 2017-18 MVP James Harden struggled navigating the NBA's change on non-basketball-move fouls, with the rest of the squad grinding toward familiarity and chemistry, Durant performed near-flawlessly in averaging 29.8 points per game during Brooklyn's rocky five-game start to the season. Then, the Voltron sequence assembled Wednesday night, when the Nets pulled together their third consecutive win, a 117-108 triumph against the Atlanta Hawks.

"I just think we needed some experience; just seeing what lineups worked with what players, what sets worked with each lineup," Durant explained Wednesday. "I think that's really what it is, and you need to play games to understand that. So, we knew it was gonna be a process for us. I'm glad we were able to figure out some stuff the last few games and get back on the right page. We've just got to keep grinding, man. I keep saying the same thing: the regular season is all about preparing you for the playoffs. So, we've got to keep putting in the time and the hours."

Durant checks in at the top spot of our second edition of the Race to the MVP Ladder, after reeling off 32 points Wednesday in Brooklyn's win over the Atlanta Hawks, which netted the Nets their third-straight victory ahead of an upcoming six-game road trip starting tonight at Detroit. Averaging 28.3 ppg (his highest scoring average since 2013-14), Durant is also averaging a career-high 8.6 rpg and a solid 5.3 apg, while shooting a career-high 59.2% from the field with a career-high effective field-goal percentage of 63.6.

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Durant reeled off 13 points during a 20-4 run Wednesday to cap off a third quarter that transformed a 75-75 tie with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter into a lopsided 16-point edge going into the final frame. Durant has racked up 20 points or more in each of Brooklyn's first eight games to join Irving (2019-20) and Richard Jefferson (2007-08) as the only players in franchise history to accomplish the feat.

Here's a quick sampling of the offensive damage Durant inflicted against the Hawks.

But he's locked in defensively, too, helping the Nets earn the NBA's seventh-best defensive rating (104.1).

"He's been great defensively," coach Steve Nash said. "He's taken a lot of pride in it and led us by example with his willingness. We know with his length, athleticism, what a factor he can be down there. This year, he's been really good defensively."

After Brooklyn's 2-3 start, the club hit a franchise record 65.3% from the floor (47 of 72) Sunday against Detroit. It followed that up by hitting 22 shots from long range against the Hawks, its most since last February when it drilled a franchise-high 27 buckets from range against the Sacramento Kings.

Durant's rise to the top of the Race to the MVP Ladder comes at the same time we see two new additions to the top five in Miami's Jimmy Butler and Chicago's DeMar DeRozan. Familiar faces like Denver's Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo fall out of the upper echelon with the Nuggets going 2-2 since Oct. 29 and the Bucks losing three in a row from Oct. 27-31. Memphis superstar point guard Ja Morant maintains his spot among the top five.

Let's keep in mind the season is still young, which means we can expect several changes in this space from now until the end of the season.

And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 28.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.3 apg

Durant put on an absolute clinic in Wednesday's win against the Hawks, including a magical third quarter. According to StatMuse, if Durant maintains his current production, he'll join LeBron James as the only other non-big to average 25 points on 55% shooting over the last 35 seasons. "I just think we're getting comfortable with our plays, knowing what sets we want to call, knowing what we want to play out of," Durant said. "Coach put in so many good sets throughout the training camp and preseason that sometimes you might have to scale back and hold on to some of those plays and mix it up a bit."

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 26.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 6.9 apg

He's connected on 13 of 31 from the field and 9 of 26 from 3-point range over the last two games with six turnovers, but the Warriors are 6-1 and on a two-game winning streak largely due to the sharpshooter's play. Curry has connected on at least one 3-pointer in 132 consecutive games, which is the NBA's longest active streak and is now the second-longest streak in NBA history. Let's keep in mind that Curry already holds the league's all-time record of 157 consecutive games with a 3-pointer, and he's the only player in NBA annals with two streaks of 100-plus games with a made 3-pointer.

3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last week's ranking: Not ranked

Season stats: 25.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.6 apg

Named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, Butler led Miami on a five-game winning streak until Wednesday, when the Heat fell 95-78 to a resurgent Celtics squad. Offensive numbers generate headlines, but let's remember Butler led the NBA in steals per game last season, becoming the first player in Heat history to do that. Butler has gobbled up 100 steals in eight straight seasons (which ties the longest active streak), and currently ranks No. 2 in the league with 21 steals behind Toronto's Gary Trent Jr. (25 steals).

4. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week's ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 7.5 apg

The 22-year-old is growing up right before our eyes, and dizzying us with moves like this on the way to ranking No. 2 in the league behind Lakers big man Anthony Davis in points in the paint (16.3). That's absolutely absurd for a guard, but we're talking about one of the league's rapidly rising stars here. Morant helped Memphis start off the week with back-to-back victories over reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets en route to the Grizzlies logging three wins in their last four games. Morant is the second-youngest player in NBA history to average 30 points or more in the first five games of a regular season since Shaquille O'Neal (1993).

5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

Last week's ranking: Not ranked

Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.6 apg

Seemingly the perfect addition in Chicago, DeRozan has poured in 32 points or more in three consecutive games to help the Bulls to a 2-1 record since Oct. 30. Over that span, DeRozan drained 3 of 6 from deep, which is somewhat of a departure, considering he's shown a penchant for being reluctant to take long-range shots. DeRozan is also getting to the free-throw line with relative ease. He's fifth in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game, but he's also hitting 87.9%, which ranks No. 1 among the top five in the league in free-throw attempts. DeRozan's current scoring average is his highest since 2016-17 (27.3 ppg).

The Next Five:

6. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

10. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

And five more: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Paul George, LA Clippers; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns; Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets.

Michael C. Wright is a senior writer 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 or its clubs.

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