With the NFL playoffs taking a break until Saturday the focus shifts back to basketball as DeMar DeRozan and co will look to build on their 1 game winning streak tonight against the Atlanta Hawks.
The past few games have played out quite predictably, with losses to Boston (twice) and Chicago separating wins against Cleveland and Sacramento. The defense has maintained its awful standard, and in both of their wins the Raptors have allowed to opposition to break the 100 point barrier.
The most positive development within the team as of late has to be the progress of DeMar DeRozan. The second year shooting guard has been consistently getting it done on the offensive end and is showing flashes of becoming a consistent second option on offense.
That being said he still needs to work on the defensive side of his game and ball handling. But progress is nonetheless welcomed. We all knew coming out of the draft that DeRozan was athletically raw, and one could only hope that he would improve his all around game step by step on a consistent basis. He had a stinker last time out against the Hawks and will be looking to show the fans that he has become a completely different player.
The game against Atlanta will conjure recent memories of blowout losses both home and at Phillips Arena. The Hawks are an athletic team that look to get up and down the court. They present the dual threat of not only having guys like Josh Smith (triple double last time these two met) and Al Horford being able to finish at the rim, but also employing a plethora of perimeter shooters that have a history of burning the Raptors.
After a slow start to the season Atlanta has rounded into form as of late and will be no pushovers. They represent a team that was built in a way in which most Toronto fans would love theirs to be, through the draft. Atlanta steadily increased their win total over the years, accumulating guys like Smith, Horford and Williams, and when the time was right they were able to sign a guy like Joe Johnson. After years of quick fixes, Raptor fans now look to Bryan Colangelo for some sort of similar long term vision for the team. They hope that the days of quick fix deals for guys like Jermaine O'Neal, Shawn Marion and Hedo Turkoglu are a thing of the past.
The Hawks were scheduled to have a rematch of their 1st round playoff series againsst the Bucks last night but the game was postponed due to a snowstorm. Instead of coming into town on the latter half of a back to back, the Raptors will be facing a rested team. This game represents a great opportunity to exercise some revenge for the shellacking these Hawks gave the Raptors last time out, and without further ado here are the 3 keys to the game
1) Bench production
A recent study by John Hollinger rated teams bench production through PER (player efficiency rating) The Toronto Raptors were ranked 1st in this metric, and for the Raptors to get a win tonight the bench needs to play well. Atlanta has one of the more solid starting fives in the league so it's the Dinos' bench that needs to be the difference maker this evening. Aside from Jamal Crawford, there isn't a lot of depth on the ATL bench, so this is an area the Raps need to take advantage of.
2) Dominate the paint
It will be imperative for Bargnani, Amir and the rest of our big men to establish themselves in the pain from an early point in the game. Smith and Horford are no pushovers, and if they allowed to control the paint it will only free up more open looks for their perimeter shooters. The Raptors need to double team only when necessary, and do their best to force their counterparts into tough shots. Last time out DeRozan in particular was very late with his closeouts and the 3 ball sucked the life out of the ACC.
3) Play as a team
This game represents a great opportunity for this young team to show some pride and make a statement. In their recent (relatively speaking) wins the Raptors have looked more like a team rather than a set of individuals. Ball movement, finding mismatches and attacking the basket will be key on offense going up against Hotlanta. We all know what this team is capable of when they play like one.