Decisions await the Denver Nuggets as the regular season winds down and we head into next week's Play-In Tournament.
Nikola Jokic wants to play, while Nuggets coach Michael Malone prefers to take a more measured approach.
"Nikola and I have been together for six years," Malone explained after Denver's 117-112 win against Charlotte that clinched the Nuggets home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. "We have a tremendous relationship: coach-player, friend, whatever you want to call it. So, we've been having an ongoing discussion about potentially reducing minutes, potentially sitting out games.
"That's something we'll continue to look at. On one hand, I truly respect the hell out of Nikola; the way he has this immense amount of pride that he wants to play every night. But we also have to be smart, not only for Nikola, but for our team. We have already sustained enough injuries. We don't need the MVP, the clear-cut MVP, to have any injuries going into the postseason."
Nikola Jokic (31 PTS, 14 REB) keeps @nuggets 1 game behind LAC for West's #3 seed. pic.twitter.com/uupU7AHor6- NBA (@NBA) May 14, 2021
Monte Morris missed 12 games due to a right hamstring injury, while Will Barton (right hamstring), and P.J. Dozier (right adductor) continue to nurse nagging injuries in the wake of the Nuggets losing Jamal Murray for the season with a torn left ACL.
Jokic hasn't missed a game all season. He played 32 minutes in Denver's 114-103 win over Minnesota, cobbling together 31 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Nuggets past the Timberwolves. So, sitting out today's game at Detroit and the season-finale at Portland shouldn't adversely affect the center's chances of becoming the first Denver Nugget to win the MVP award.
Still, that doesn't diminish Jokic's resolve to keep hooping.
"I wanted to play every game as long as I'm healthy. Everybody's talking to me," Jokic said. "So, I'm going to think about it. My goal and my hope is to play every game."
Having racked up a 30-point double-double in a win over Charlotte, Jokic maintains his tight grip on the No. 1 spot atop the Race to the MVP Ladder with slim prospects of another competitor in the field overtaking him this weekend (when the regular season comes to a close).
"I can just say that I think this season is probably the best season I've had in my life," Jokic said. "The team, we're playing good the whole season. We had ups and downs, but mainly we are going in the right direction. If it happens, [it] happens."
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week's ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 26.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 8.4 apg, 1.3 spg
Nikola Jokic pours in 30 points and 11 rebounds for a double-double vs. the Hornets.
Interestingly, the Nuggets became the only team in the league to capture home-court advantage for the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and we all understand Jokic's contribution towards reaching that feat. With Jokic running the show, the Nuggets are 12-5 since Murray suffered his season-ending knee injury back in April. With two games remaining in the season, Jokic needs only one more triple-double to tie Fat Lever for the most in a single season (16) in Nuggets franchise history. Jokic already ranks No. 1 in league history with the most games (88) of 10-plus assists for a center.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week's ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 28.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Joel Embiid is confident in the Sixers' makeup and capability to go after the title.
Absolutely dominant when healthy, Embiid might've owned a realistic shot at overtaking Jokic if not for all the games he's missed. Embiid had missed 20 games going into Thursday's loss at Miami, putting him in peril of falling below the 70% threshold of games played to qualify for a spot in the NBA's statistical rankings. Embiid continues to play with confidence, and he's made it clear he believes the 76ers possess the necessary ingredients to seriously compete for a championship. "We've got everything we need to make that run," Embiid said. We'll soon see once the postseason gets underway on May 22.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week's ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 28.4 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 5.9 apg
Giannis Antetokounmpo had his way with the Pacers in the Bucks' win on Thursday night.
The reigning two-time MVP, Antetokounmpo put together his 20th game this season with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists - which ranks second in the NBA - in a 114-102 win on Tuesday against the Orlando Magic. Antetokounmpo and Jokic are the only players this season averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. That puts Antetokounmpo on track to register his third straight season with such numbers - a feat only accomplished by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Antetokounmpo dropped 40 points and 15 rebounds in Thursday's win over the Indiana Pacers.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week's ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 28.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.6 apg
The Mavericks are feeling more unified than before and leaning on MVP contender Luka Doncic as the playoffs near.
Dropped 33 points in a win over New Orleans on Wednesday that ended the Pelicans' shot at reaching the State Farm Play-In Tournament. The Mavericks have won eight of their last 10 games with Kristaps Porzingis missing seven of the last eight, and that's largely due to Doncic, who currently ranks No. 3 in the league in 25-point games this season (45). Doncic leads the NBA in 30-point, five-rebound, five-assist games this season (22), and he's put together the most 30-5-5 performances over the past two seasons. The Mavericks are 12-3 this season when Doncic scores 30 points to go with at least eight rebounds and eight assists.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week's ranking: No. 7
Season stats: 31.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.2 spg
Buckle up and take a look at Stephen Curry's ultimate run.
Not saying it will happen, but wouldn't it be intriguing to see Curry and LeBron James face off in the State Farm Play-In Tournament? Entering Friday, Curry is just 31 points away from reaching 2,000 points this season, which would mark the second time in his career that he's hit that milestone. Curry would join Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry and Chris Mullin as the only Warriors to produce multiple seasons with 2,000 points. Curry has also knocked down more than 300 3-pointers for the fourth time in his career. Only Curry and James Harden have ever connected on 300 or more 3-pointers in a single season.
Got thoughts on the MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet!
The Next Five:
6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
7. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
9. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
And five more: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards; James Harden, Brooklyn Nets; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets.
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.
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