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NBA This Week: Big trades could shake up playoffs

With the All-Star festivities over and the NFL season wrapped up, sports fans’ attention will turn to the NBA — at least for the next two weeks, until college basketball takes over.

About two-thirds of the way through the season, certain teams are performing as expected. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors sit atop their respective conferences, with the San Antonio Spurs in striking distance. But while those three teams rule the roost, it’s unclear exactly who will be challenging them come April. With the trade deadline hitting this week — 3 p.m. ET today, to be specific — major changes could be in store.

As it stands, things are wide open in the East, where the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards are each a handful of games behind the Cavs. But plenty could still happen in the league’s most turbulent conference. The Miami Heat are threatening to slip into the postseason, as are the Milwaukee Bucks, while the underperforming Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers will most likely have to make something happen in trade talks in order to resuscitate their seasons.

In the West, things are more competitive. The Houston Rockets are a lock for the playoffs, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz should have no trouble making it in as well. But the Oklahoma City Thunder are less well-positioned; if Russell Westbrook hits a wall, there is a chance they could drop out of the race entirely. Meanwhile, a blockbuster trade sending the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans could have a major impact on the Pelicans’ season, either bolstering their playoff chances or torpedoing their season if Cousins decides he does not enjoy the Cajun lifestyle.

Let’s get into some games.

Game of the Week

Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN.

Serge Ibaka is in Toronto for good, and the Raptors’ front office is gleeful. Masai Ujiri, the team’s president, has been trying to acquire the forward for years, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to finally seal the deal. The Raptors have gone 11-14 since the beginning of January, falling out of the second spot in the Eastern conference that they had occupied for much of the season. Ibaka, a fantastic player with playoff experience to spare, could be exactly what they need, both on the floor and in the locker room.

He should be able to plug up the middle on defense and spread the floor on offense, offering toughness and leadership as well as the ability to knock down jump shots. This season — his first outside of Oklahoma City where Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook made Ibaka a perennial third or fourth option — the forward is averaging 15 points, matching his career high, along with nearly 7 rebounds a game.

The Raptors, with two backcourt stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, now finally have a big man in Ibaka — he is 6 feet 10 inches and weighs 235 pounds — whose talent matches those of the team’s guards. And though there have been some murmurs about Ibaka having alienated his former teammates on the Orlando Magic, his winning seasons in Oklahoma City taught him how to compete in the playoffs, which the Raptors will need if they’re to have any hope of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Ibaka alone can vault Toronto above the Celtics and Wizards in the standings. Neither team’s recent success is a fluke, and Boston, by acquiring Al Horford this summer, has gained the balance that the Raptors are hoping Ibaka will provide. In the most recent game the two teams played, at the beginning of February, Horford and the Celtics’ forward Jae Crowder combined for 25 points, abusing Toronto’s big men in the paint.

But that hasn’t stopped Boston from looking around for more. Reports say that the Celtics are involved in various trade talks, seeking to make “a blockbuster-type move.” And with the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler available, it’s possible that the Celtics could have a new superstar as early as this week. With their rivals moving fast to arm themselves for the playoffs, Boston may feel spurred to do the same.

Three Others to Watch

Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors, 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday, TNT.

The Clippers entered the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak, despite missing guard Chris Paul, who had surgery on his hand in mid-January and was scheduled to be out six to eight weeks.

No word yet on whether Paul will be back for this week’s games, though his coach, Doc Rivers, has said that he is all but game ready. But in his absence, forward Blake Griffin has been picking up the slack. The Clippers left the contender conversation after dropping out of first place early in the season. But when they’re healthy, they’re a legitimate threat.

New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder, 7 p.m. ET Sunday, NBA TV.

Sunday’s game between the Pelicans and the Thunder may offer a national audience its first chance at watching DeMarcus Cousins in a New Orleans jersey. The Pelicans are two-and-a-half games behind the eighth-place Denver Nuggets as it stands, and Cousins, who is averaging 27.8 points, along with nearly 11 rebounds and 5 assists a game, may give them enough firepower to make up the difference.

League Pass Game of the Week: Utah Jazz at Washington Wizards, 5 p.m. ET Sunday.

The Wizards have won 11 of their 12 home games in 2017, but it’s anyone guess as to whether the All-Star break ended their hot streak. The Jazz should provide a fair test on Sunday, pitting their reliable front line against Washington’s stellar guard combo. Utah remains the top team in its division and is holding steady as the fifth seed in the West.

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