3 in the Key: Hawks-Raptors Gameday Preview

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raps welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the ACC tonight, as the team looks to head into the All-Star break on a high.

On Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Raptors avoided the dreaded home game let-down that teams so often experience after a long road trip. The Raps overcame a few rough moments to triumph over the Pellies, and they'll need a similar effort when they take on the Atlanta Hawks tonight.

With the standings as tight as they are in the East (just 5 games separate the Pistons in 9th, from the Raps in 3rd) every game on the schedule is important. But tonight's game against Atlanta carries some extra weight for two reasons.

Firstly, the Hawks are among those teams, along with the Raps, in the mix for a shot at home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. Mid-season wins or loses against Eastern Conference playoff rivals, like Atlanta, could prove crucial, as far as seeding goes by the season's end.

Secondly, it's important that the Raps head into the All-Star break on a winning note. After the initial euphoria created by the team's excellent turnaround, post-Rudy trade, there have been some signs of complacency creeping into the Raps' game. Loses against the Bobcats, Celtics, Lakers, and recently, against the Kings, are evidence of that. Ending this week on a mini winning streak, before a crucial stretch of games beginning on Tuesday, would give the team a big injection of confidence.

That said, the All-Star break might just be the tonic that the Raps need to get rested (Looking at you, Amir) and refocused, for the final 30 games.

So, what about those Atlanta Hawks?

Like many basketball fans, I really wasn't a fan of the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith Atlanta Hawks -- a talented, but underachieving bunch that seemed to slam their collective head off that second-round ceiling year after year. This current team, sans Iso-Joe and J-Smoove, doesn't have a higher ceiling than the Hawks of two seasons ago, but in my opinion, they're a lot more enjoyable to watch.

The Hawks enter play tonight at 25-25, coming off a 4-game losing streak, the latest installment of which was a 100-85 shellacking by the Bulls last night. But setting aside their current mini-slump, new coach Mike Budenholzer has his side overachieving this season. The Hawks began the year well, but looked like they'd slide down the standings once their best player, the criminally underrated Al Horford, went down with injury. But the team, led by newly minted All-Star, Paul Millsap, has stayed afloat.

Of course, all this may change by the February 20th trade deadline, depending on what general manager Danny Ferry sees as his best course of action moving forward. The team could decide to stay put and continue their run for the 3rd or 4th seed; or they could blow things up and try a sneaky back-door tank. Part of the reason that the Hawks are able to seriously consider both options is because they're immensely flexible salary-wise. Seriously, check out these player salaries. There's not a single bad contract on the books. How they were able to sign Millsap to that two-year, $19 million deal, remains one of the great off-season mysteries.

Let's just hope that the Hawks (smooth segue alert) aren't a mystery for the Raps tonight.

Here are 3 keys for tonight's game:

Attack the Hawks inside

The Hawks don't possess one 7-footer on the roster, and while Millsap is a decent rebounder for his size, the team is vulnerable on the glass. They currently rank 25th in the league in rebounding rate, and with both Horford and random Bond villain Pero Antic out injured, the Raps should look to post up Jonas Valanciunas early and often, and see if they can expose the Hawks inside.

Know where Kyle Korver is at all times

Kyle Korver currently has a true-shooting percentage of 65% (he's shooting 46% from downtown), which is utterly bonkers; and last night against the Bulls he extended his record streak of games with a made 3-pointer to 119. All this is another way of saying: DO NOT LEAVE KYLE KORVER OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. DeMar DeRozan, who will likely be guarding Korver for stretches tonight, will have to be cognizant of his man at all times, and will need to do his best to fight through screens (something he's not always adept at) and close him out.

Another strong performance from Patrick Patterson

Patterson was put into the starting lineup against the Pelicans, in the absence of the injured Amir Johnson; and he did not disappoint, finishing with 20 points and 6 rebounds. Assuming that Amir sits again tonight (he really should), Patterson will need to put forward a similar effort -- which means looking for his shot and playing aggressive -- to make up for an inevitable lack of bench production as a result of him starting.

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