3 in the Key - Raptors' Game-Day Preview vs. the Hawks

Without Reggie Evans it will be a tough go this afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks, but RaptorsHQ throws out 3 keys for an Evans-less Toronto Raptors' squad in terms of getting the W...

Editor's Note:  The HQ is expanding!  Since about the end of last season it became clear to the team that they could use a few extra resources to help on the content side, so last month they put out the call to Ryerson's School of Journalism here in Toronto, seeking interns.  They've narrowed their list down to a few final candidates, but want readers help in deciding who eventually rounds out the team.  To that end, the HQ will be posting work from the finalists, and at the end of it, will seek feedback from you, the readers, as to who should get the gig!

We had our first three intern submission earlier this week, and here's our fourth courtesy of Sean Tepper, contestant number four...

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Just when Raptors fans were ready to give up on the season and start debating over whom Toronto should take with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, a funny thing happened.

They started to win.

That's right, despite starting the season a dismal 2-9, things started to look up for the seemingly hopeless Raptors.

Many critics were shaking their heads after a 109-94 loss to the re-building Washington Wizards, but the Dinos quickly responded by going on a four game winning streak. For the first time all season, the Raptors transformed into a team that had a sense of urgency and confidence about them. Guards Sonny Weems and DeMar DeRozan were living up to their potential; while centre Andrea Bargnani was showcasing his scoring abilities and solidifying himself as the team's "go to guy". 

However, the most important factor contributing to the Raptors' success came from the emergence of Reggie Evans, as he not only established himself as a physical presence, but as a veteran leader as well.  The 6'8 power forward, provided a powerful presence at both ends of the court as well as providing a hard physical edge to a team that often displayed a distinct softness down low.

That is until they traveled to Boston to play the Celtics.

After breaking his foot midway through the third quarter in Fridays 110-101 loss, the Raptors were suddenly faced with a the reality of having to fill the void created by Evans and 12.1 rebounds per game.

Fresh off of a four game winning streak, this afternoon's game against the visiting Atlanta Hawks is not a good time for the Raptors to start searching for solutions down low. The Hawks are an extremely well rounded team that pride themselves on their ability to score points in the paint, as well as from the perimeter. Led by Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith, Atlanta will provide a number of defensive challenges for head coach Jay Triano, who is expected to call upon forward Amir Johnson to fill Evans' spot in the starting rotation. However, if they can play smart basketball, take high percentage shots and avoid sloppy turnovers, the Raptors may very well start another winning streak. Here are the keys to this afternoon's game.

1) Dominating the paint - The Raptors' recent success can partly be credited to Evans and his ability to consistently dominate at both at ends of the glass.  Evans, who ranks third in the NBA with 12.1 rebounds per game, proved to be the physical presence in the paint that the Raptors have been lacking in past years. With both Al Horford and Josh Smith, two overpowering rebounders, set to take the court on Sunday, the Raptors will have to hope that Amir Johnson can pick up where Evans left off and dominate the boards.

In addition to being excellent rebounders, both Horford and Smith are players that pride themselves on their play in the paint. Horford, who is second in the league in field goal percentage and Smith, who is averaging close to 16 points per game, use both their size and athleticism to get to the basket uncontested. It will be up to the combination of Bargnani and Johnson to establish a physical presence and limit Atlanta's chances down low. If they are unable to do that, then Sunday's game may be over before it even started.

2) Containing Crawford - The Raptors went a dismal 1-3 against the Hawks last year and a large part of that can be credited to the play of Jamal Crawford.  Crawford, who was last year's winner of the sixth man award, loved playing Canada's team as he averaged 22.3 points per game against the Raptors last season. While many people think that Atlanta's offense revolves around Joe Johnson and his $119 million contract, Crawford has proven to be a difference maker for Atlanta. The Raptors will need to play outstanding perimeter defense if they hope to keep Crawford and the Hawks offense at bay.

3) Continued Production from the Bench - Despite losing to the Celtics on Friday, the Raptors' have to be pleased with the production that they have been getting from their bench. Over the past two games, Toronto's bench has averaged 52 points per contest and scored for over half of the team's points.  Evans' injury means that bench players such as Kleiza, Dorsey and the newly acquired Stojakovic will see an increased number of minutes. Those players
must continue to put in productive minutes off the bench to give the Raptors a chance night in and night out.

While the timetable for Reggie Evans' return set to be announced before the game, the Raptors can count on being without their physical big man for an extended period of time. Showing the rest of the league that they can still be a physical force without one of their grizzled veterans will gain them some much needed respect around the league, and it all starts with beating the Hawks.

Sean Tepper

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