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10 biggest surprises of the NBA regular season

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10 biggest surprises of the NBA regular season

Here we are on the eve of the NBA Playoffs after what's been a wild regular season.

So wild, in fact, that I felt compelled to put together a list of the 10 most shocking happenings over the last 82 games. This is my personal perspective, given everything I thought I knew before tip off of the first game of the 2015-16 season. 

Of course there are plenty of honorable mentions to be, well, mentioned, like Kristaps Porzingis being as spectacular as he's been (though one colleague of mine predicted this all along) and Drake not performing at halftime of the All-Star Game in his own city. 

But anyway, let's get on with it before we have playoff games to watch. 

10. Luke Walton - The Warriors assistant coach got thrust into the head job when Steve Kerr suffered debilitating headaches after back surgery. That Kerr would miss more than half of the season was surprising enough, but that a 36-year-old assistant would lead Golden State to a record 24-0 start was the real shocker. 

9. Chicago Bulls - In the preseason, the Bulls were widely predicted to win around 50 games. Pro Basketball Talk's power rankings had them at No. 9, while FiveThirtyEight.com projected them to win 48 games and gave them an 88% chance of making the playoffs. None of that happened. Chicago is outside the playoffs looking in with a 42-40 record. That's made more surprising by the fact that Derrick Rose played 66 games, the most since his MVP 2010-11 season. 

8. Isaiah Thomas - Five of seven Sports Illustrated NBA experts predicted Thomas to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. Instead, the 5-foot-9 point guard grabbed the starting job in his first full year in Boston AND made his first career All-Star appearance. His per game numbers rose from 16.4 points and 4.2 assists to 22.2 points and 6.2 assists year-over-year. 

7. Washington Wizards - At the end of the 2015 playoffs, many around Washington felt the Wizards could have made the Eastern Conference Finals if John Wall had been healthy. Wizards Insider J. Michael predicted the team would finish third in the East and potentially contend for the conference title at the beginning of this season. Those expectations were in line with other NBA experts, but never came to fruition as injuries, a new system and poor defense torpedoed the Wizards' playoff hopes. Read a full breakdown of what went wrong here

6. Blake Griffin's broken hand - On the list of unlikely injuries, Griffin breaking his hand by punching Clippers staffer Matias Testi has to be the most absurd. And embarrassing. And shameful. But definitely surprising. Heck, if Testi had seen it coming, I doubt he would've gone out with Griffin that night in the first place. 

5. Kevin McHale's firing - The Rockets fired Kevin McHale just 11 games into the season in one of the earliest surprises of the year. Although Houston stumbled to a 4-7 record out of the gate, McHale had coached a virtually identical squad to the Western Conference Finals the season before. What makes his dismissal more shocking was that it came in the first year of the three-year, $12 million extension he'd inked months before. Charles Barkley called McHale's firing "a disgrace and a travesty." The Rockets haven't fared much better without McHale, limping to a 41-41 record and squeaking past the Jazz into the playoffs. 

4. Portland Trail Blazers - LeMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez all left Portland in the summer of 2015. With Damian Lillard as the team's only remaining starter, the Trail Blazers were basically left for dead. Pro Basketball Talk's preseason projections ranked post-exodus Rip City at No. 29 out of 30 teams, with only the tank-job 76ers considered worse. Fast forward 82 games and Portland is sitting pretty as the five seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Attribute some of that success to the visionary play of Lillard, who richly deserved to be an All-Star, but also give a lot of credit to C.J. McCollum, who went from a backup to a 21 points per night scoring maniac. He's a favorite to win Most Improved Player -- he'd deserve it.  

3. Stephen Curry - It would be unfair to say that the reigning MVP has taken his game to the next level. That would imply that his ascension has followed a rung-by-rung, linear climb. The Curry of 2015-16 is something altogether unfamiliar and apart from anything the NBA has ever seen. He's the overwhelming favorite to win a second consecutive MVP award while also getting deserved consideration for Most Improved. His 402 3-pointers this season broke his own record, set last year, by more than 100. Curry is less an NBA player than an NBA phenomenon, and no list of surprises would be complete without the man to whom realistic expectations no longer apply. 

2. David Blatt's firing - The Cavaliers cited a "lack of fit with our personnel and our vision" as justification for firing head coach David Blatt. Never mind that Cleveland had been to the Finals the previous season and owned the Eastern Conference's best record at the time he was dismissed. Imagine: One day you're anticipating coaching the East All Stars; the next you're packing up your office. Life comes at you fast (and wearing a No. 23 jersey). 

1. 73-9 - The 1995-96 Bulls record was never supposed to be broken. 72-10 should have been protected by the punishing duration of the NBA season. And by the fact that there has never been another player like Michael Jordan. If by some miracle another team were to challenge that best-all-time benchmark, certainly it couldn't happen in the same conference as a 67-win Spurs team. Especially not if the challenger had to beat San Antonio twice in the span of four games to close out the season. Never, never. Not in a million years. Bulls in four. 

MORE WIZARDS: Wall's Olympic chances better but complicated by knee injury

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Bradley Beal on his struggles, getting an apology from Scott Brooks

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Bradley Beal on his struggles, getting an apology from Scott Brooks

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks remarked after Game 2 and following practice on Thursday that he was partly to blame for Bradley Beal's modest scoring output through two games in the team's playoff series against the Raptors. They weren't just throwaway lines, a coach trying to make his star player feel better for struggling in the playoffs.

No, Brooks truly meant what he said and followed up those comments with an apology face-to-face. Brooks met with Beal and John Wall in between Games 2 and 3 to see how they can get Beal going and reiterated that some of it all was on the coach.

"He apologized to me, which was weird because he's somebody who always holds me accountable for stuff," Beal said after Friday's shootaround. "I guess he figured I wasn't shooting the ball enough and he thought it was his fault. I don't know."

Beal, who is averaging 14.0 points in two games and scored only nine in Game 2, came away from the meeting with a good understanding of what he needs to do to get back on track. After apologizing, Brooks laid out a strategy in hopes that he, Wall and Beal can all be on the same page moving forward.

They need to get their All-Star shooting guard back to form on the offensive end.

"He just basically challenged me. He challenged me to be more aggressive on the offensive and defensive end," Beal said.

What has made Beal's scoring troubles through two games particularly surprising is how well he played against the Raptors during the regular season. He averaged 28.8 points in four games against Toronto and all were without Wall.

Beal shot 50 percent against the Raptors both from the field and from three. So far this series he's shooting just 39.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from long range.

Asked whether there is anything he can draw from the regular season to apply to the playoffs, Beal said it's not as easy as it may seem.

"Those games are different. The matchups are different to an extent. It's totally different in the playoffs because you have more time to prep and prepare and gameplan for us," he said. 

"I think the biggest thing is them being physical. They are real physical with me. Whenever I'm standing around on offense or moving around, they are grabbing me. I just need to be physical back with them. Keep moving off the ball and especially if Kyle [Lowry] is guarding me. Tire him out as much as possible. Continue to be aggressive."

Coaches use all sorts of leadership tactics to motivate players. Perhaps an apology will do the trick.

MORE ON THE WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

HISTORIC ODDS FOR TEAMS THAT GO DOWN 0-2

BROOKS MAY CHANGE STARTING LINEUP FOR GAME 3

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2018 NBA Playoffs Wizards-Raptors Game 3: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

2018 NBA Playoffs Wizards-Raptors Game 3: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and the Washington Wizards battle Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and the Toronto Raptors on Friday night in Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Playoffs.

Here is all you need to know: TV, live stream and radio info, tip-off time, plus three things to watch:

GAME 3: TORONTO RAPTORS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Series: Raptors lead 2-0
Where: Capital One Arena
Tip-off: 8 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington (pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m.)
Live stream: NBCSportsWashington.com
Radio: 1500 AM

Do or die

If the Wizards lose on Friday night, the series will technically not be over. They will be down 0-3 with a home game up next and an opportunity to extend their season and send it all back to Toronto. That said, the odds would not be good. In fact, they would be pretty much as bad as they can be.

No team in NBA history has ever come back from down 0-3 in a series. So, unless the Wizards feel like they can make history, like UMBC over Virginia history, then they better win Game 3. 

Now, some teams have come close to making it happen. Three times before a team has gone down 0-3 and forced seven games. The last time was the 2003 Blazers, who fell in Game 7 to the Mavs. 

Recovering from an 0-3 deficit to win a seven-game series has happened in both baseball and hockey, most famously in 2004 when the Red Sox beat the Yankees to reach the World Series. At some point it will happen in basketball, but the chances are essentially next-to-none. The Wizards will be much better off by winning Game 3, just like they did last year when they went down 0-2 against the Celtics in the second round and forced a Game 7.

Beal and Otto

The Wizards are hoping to see more from both Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. It was a big topic of discussion at Thursday's practice how both guys need to be more aggressive in looking for their own shot. Beal was held to just nine points in Game 2 and Porter, the NBA's third-best three-point shooter, didn't even attempt one three.

Brooks held a meeting with Beal and John Wall to discuss how they can get Beal more opportunities, but ultimately it's up to him and Porter to force the issue for themselves. It would seem likely at least one of them breaks out in Game 3. They both were great against the Raptors during the regular season and both proved throughout the year that they can score against anybody.

Too many threes

The biggest reason the Wizards are down 0-2 in this series is the three-point shot. The Raptors have hit a ton of them and even though the Wizards have been intent on stopping them, they have had no such luck.

The Raptors hit 16 threes in the first game to set a playoff franchise record. They shot 51.7 percent from long range. In Game 2, they hit 13 and 11 were in the first half. They made seven of them in the first quarter alone to the tune of 44 points, the worst defensive quarter in the playoffs in Wizards franchise history since 1965.

This is how much the three-point shot matters: the Raptors' 11 first-half threes in Game 2 helped them outscore the Wizards by 18 points by halftime, but in the second half when they hit only two threes, the Wizards edged them by seven points. Washington has to stop the three-pointer, it's that simple.

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For more on the Wizards-Raptors series, check out or latest Wizards Tipoff podcast: