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Will Serge Ibaka be the difference maker in Toronto?

Serge Ibaka
Newly acquired Toronto forward Serge Ibaka applauds on the sideline before a game against Charlotte on Feb. 15.
(Frank Gunn / Associated Press)

This week’s trending topics in the NBA:

Ibaka shocka

Kevin Love’s knee surgery will sideline him until April but his absence alone was not enough to question Cleveland’s path toward a third consecutive NBA Finals visit.

Toronto’s addition of Serge Ibaka could do that. If Ibaka is the physical, ferocious, floor-spreading fit he figures to be, the Raptors could emerge from their spiral that has wasted a Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan backcourt. If star-chasing Boston or bench-needing Washington also react with a move by Thursday’s trade deadline, the Eastern Conference plot would thicken.

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The Cavaliers might be temporarily vulnerable without Love, although they still won seven of their last eight games. Toronto’s more realistic chase is for the No. 2 spot belonging to Boston, which visits the Raptors on Friday for Ibaka’s debut. Ibaka is not the defensive menace he once was but he gives Toronto needed toughness and career-best three-point shooting.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri’s long-desired acquisition put the onus on his stars to respond after losing 11 of their last 16 games, including nine losses to sub-.500 teams. The price of sending Terrence Ross and a low first-round pick to Orlando was right, as long as Toronto swallows re-signing Lowry and Ibaka in July for a steep luxury tax penalty.

Until then, Ibaka returns to a more fitting supporting role and Toronto can have more flow and space on offense, especially with smaller lineups. It might prove to be Ujiri’s best move since dumping Rudy Gay.

‘Melo’ in

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There will be no Love for the All-Star Game, and there is little love for Carmelo Anthony replacing him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gave Anthony his 10th All-Star appearance as an injury replacement for Love. Anthony is not having one of his better seasons but a 23.4 scoring average amid Knicks tumult did not make the honor much of a stretch.

It comes at the expense of worthy candidates such as Miami’s Hassan Whiteside (16.8 points per game, NBA-high 14.1 rebounds per game and 2.1 blocks per game on a hot team), Atlanta’s Dwight Howard (13.5 points per game and 13 rebounds per game with career-high 64.4% shooting) and Washington’s Bradley Beal (22.3 points per game, 39.9% three-point shooting on the East’s No. 3 team). Philadelphia center Joel Embiid might have been chosen if not for his own health issue.

Even Stevens

Since Brad Stevens left Butler for Boston, the Celtics have improved in each of his four seasons as head coach, with the help of major additions such as Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford.

Stevens’ calm, communicative way also deserves due, especially for how he navigated Boston through injuries this season to be No. 2 in the East. As a reward, Stevens will be the conference’s All-Star head coach, making him the only coach besides Larry Brown and Fred Schaus to coach in a NCAA championship and a NBA All-Star Game.

Outspoken Warriors

Golden State’s Draymond Green shocks nobody when he does not bite his tongue but squeaky-clean Stephen Curry showed he will not be a star who shies from strong stances.

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When Under Armour Chief Executive Kevin Plank told CNBC that President Trump is an “asset to the country” for his pro-business approach, Curry later responded to the San Jose Mercury News, “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et.’”

Curry is signed to endorse Under Armour through 2024. Plank clarified his positions and values in a news release and a full-page Baltimore Sun ad, which included a stance against Trump’s travel ban.

Meanwhile, Green used his Uninterruped.com podcast to accuse Knicks owner James Dolan of having “a slave master mentality” for how Dolan handled Charles Oakley’s criticisms of the franchise.

A better way

With the NBA clearing the way for uniform sponsor patches next season, the winces came for announced deals with General Electric (Boston), StubHub (Philadelphia), Blue Diamond (Sacramento) and Infor (Brooklyn).

Utah found a more palatable sponsor. Local software company Qualtrics will pay $10 million over three years to put its cancer research charity’s logo on the Jazz uniforms. “5 for the Flight” asks for $5 donations with a goal of raising $50 million.

GAME TO WATCH: SPURS AT CLIPPERS: Friday at 7 p.m. TV: ESPN

A night after playing at Golden State, the Clippers will try to move to 3-0 against a Spurs team that is otherwise 43-11 this season. The Spurs will be technically amid the “Rodeo Trip” but this will be their first game in nine days. Per usual, the trip has gone well at 4-2 with only a two-game Los Angeles swing remaining. Spurs all-star Kawhi Leonard has averaged 26.9 points per game with 49% shooting from the field this season on the road, where San Antonio has a league-best 24 wins.

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