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Four Things We Didn’t See Coming at the Beginning of the NBA Season

Wait … Utah might make the playoffs?

A photo collage of Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan, and Damian Lillard Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One could make the case that the entire NBA season has been an exercise in inevitability, that everyone is just going through the motions while trying not to think about Golden State devouring the field come postseason. But accepting that fate is boring. So we must believe that the Rockets have a shot, give our attention to the tank race, and enjoy the season’s smaller-picture surprises. As the regular season hits the final stretch, here are some of the biggest developments we didn’t see coming:

Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan As Top-Five MVP Candidates

Maybe it’s blasphemous that we’re willing to put Lillard and DeRozan right below Anthony Davis and James Harden, right with LeBron, and above [insert your take about Steph vs. KD here], but their résumés merit recognition.

After scrapping their way into the 8-seed last year, the Blazers have found their way to the 3-seed in the West by playing elite defense and counting on Lillard to provide the offense. Dame has averaged 34.5 points per game over Portland’s past 12, and this season, when he’s scored more than 30 points, Portland has gone 13–6. And while numbers are important, sometimes all you need to understand greatness are moments like this one:

Likewise with DeRozan, I can simply drop this in:

Or I can also tell you how the guard is having his most voluminous and efficient season from beyond the arc. Sure, DeRozan is leading the Raptors in scoring, but he’s posting a career-high 5.2 assists per game, too. Now the Raptors suddenly look like the favorite in the East. Try telling that to the 2017 version of yourself.

The Pacers As a 3-Seed

I can apologize for doubting Indiana and plead for room on the bandwagon later. But for now, I’ll just marvel at the fact Indiana has been able to get in position to grab the 3-seed after sending Paul George off to not-so-greener pastures (the Pacers have a better winning percentage than OKC).

Victor Oladipo’s All-Star ascension has been key to the Pacers’ turnaround, yes, but Domantas Sabonis has also become his perfect running mate. After an injury-plagued first half of the season, Myles Turner has looked exceptional. Even Lance Stephenson has had his moments. And how about Nate McMillan? The second-year head coach took a fire extinguisher to his hot seat and has likely bought himself another year or two at the helm of a promising, young team.

The Jazz As a Playoff Team

It is March 13, and yes, the Utah Jazz are holding off the Spurs and the Nuggets in the race for the 8-seed in the West. Welcome to the Donovan Mitchell era. If this is what Mitchell’s first year looks like, the future is going to be a blast.

Utah has won 11 straight on the road and 18 of its past 20 games. That’s ridiculous. Mitchell is a glitzy star who makes you question gravity:

But the Jazz are more than flash. Rudy Gobert has been a defensive force since returning from a left knee injury in mid-January, averaging 11.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Joe Ingles is the stickiest glue guy in the league (he’s shooting 44.9 percent from 3 on 5.6 attempts per game!), while Ricky Rubio has had nights like Sunday when he casually drops 30 points and makes four 3s to continue the most successful scoring season of his career. And that’s to say nothing of the integral Derrick Favors and a revitalized post-Cavs Jae Crowder.

Kawhi Leonard As the Season’s Most Important Player

There are a lot of things about this season’s Spurs that we didn’t see coming: the absence of Kawhi for most of the year; a reported rift between him and the organization over his injury; the team’s ability to stay afloat in the West without him; and now, the team’s tumble down the standings that has placed San Antonio out of the playoffs with just 15 games remaining.

Now, Kawhi is in the forefront again. If he returns Thursday as reported, he’ll have the duty of maneuvering the Spurs through a brutal final schedule in order to keep the franchise’s storied playoff streak alive. No pressure.