“That felt like a statement,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 45-point, 13-rebound, six-assist, five-block masterpiece in Thursday’s 128-122 win over fellow Eastern Conference contender Philadelphia.
A statement to Joel Embiid and the 76ers and a statement to the rest of the Eastern Conference with the playoffs looming.
It was also a statement for the Most Valuable Player race, a race that won’t have a winner until the NBA Awards are held June 24.
With the MVP being a regular-season award, Antetokounmpo’s case is all but over. There’s no reason for the 6-foot-11 forward to play Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Oklahoma City, as the Bucks own the best record in the league at 60-21 and have wrapped up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Although there wasn’t much reason for Antetokounmpo to play Sunday either, and he went out and put up 30 points, nine rebounds and three blocks on 10-of-15 shooting in a 115-107 win over Atlanta.
If that’s the last time Antetokounmpo sees the court before the playoffs start this weekend, he’ll finish his sixth NBA regular season with averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in just 32.8 minutes per game. He’s made the typically downtrodden Bucks the favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals and has them as a top-five seed in the playoffs for just the third time since 1990. The Bucks haven’t been a No. 1 seed since they played in the Western Conference in 1973-74.
It’s been smooth sailing for the Bucks, who won their first seven games to jump-start a season in which they have lost consecutive games just one time. Milwaukee is the eighth team in NBA history to win at least 45 games by double-digits. The other seven went on to win the title, something the Bucks will look to duplicate in their first meaningful playoff run since reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000-01, the only time in the past 30 years they advanced past the first round.
While MVP races can occasionally see a player make a late statement by finishing strong, that’s not the case for Antetokounmpo, who has been near the top of the MVP race since notching 25 points, 18 rebounds, eight assists and making the game-winning free throws in a season-opening win over Charlotte in October.
It’s been a bit of a different path for Antetokounmpo’s main competition, Houston’s James Harden. The reigning MVP wasn’t a threat to repeat early on, as the Rockets lost five of their first six games and stumbled out to an 11-14 start. After losing perennial All-Star Chris Paul for significant time due to a hamstring injury, they were written off as contenders.
Then Harden went off. The 6-foot-5 guard scored at least 30 points in 32 straight games to get the Rockets on track. His sublime offensive season has Houston right where it expected to be, owners of a 53-28 record and in third place in the Western Conference heading into today’s finale at Oklahoma City. The Rockets still have a shot at second, as they are a half-game back of the Denver Nuggets (53-27) while the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors (56-24) are out of reach atop the conference.
Harden was part of his team’s slow start, but in the process of rallying the Rockets he has put up one of the best offensive seasons in league history. He is averaging 36.1 points per game in 77 games entering the finale — the second-most in the last 55 years, trailing only Michael Jordan’s 37.1 average in 1986-87.
But the five highest-scoring individual seasons in NBA history haven’t ended with MVP trophies. Jordan lost out to Magic Johnson in 1986-87, while Wilt Chamberlain averaged between 36.9 points and 50.4 points per game each year from 1960-1964 but lost to Bill Russell three times and Oscar Robertson once.
Harden’s numbers have been far from empty stats. He is also averaging 7.6 assists — Jordan averaged 4.6 assists in 1986-87 — in 36.8 minutes per game while making 4.8 3-pointers per game on 36.8 percent shooting and 9.6 free throws per game on 87.8 percent shooting. The 10-year veteran has rounded out his game since his early years in the league, averaging 2.0 steals and 6.6 rebounds while showing more effort on the defensive end.
An Antetokounmpo win would set up the concept of a Wisconsin sweep. Reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich has picked up where he left off last fall for the Milwaukee Brewers, and two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers is always a threat to enter the conversation with the Green Bay Packers. Should Harden win, Texas could hang their hats on the chances of the Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve, the 2017 American League MVP, and breakout star Alex Bregman, as well as the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot in the NFL.
The last trio to accomplish the statewide sweep in those three sports did so in 1990, when the Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson, San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds and San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana all took home MVP trophies. No one has accomplished it since, as same-state duos like Rodgers and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs, Oakland’s Miguel Tejada (A’s) and Rich Gannon (Raiders), and Jordan and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa never had the third leg.
But the sweep wouldn’t be complete until next February. In the meantime, the NBA Awards ceremony is more than two months away. The cases have been made; now it’s time to see if Antetokounmpo and Harden’s surreal seasons will carry over into the playoffs.