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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Wizards

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Let’s get this out in the open right away.

If the Toronto Raptors can win both of these they will have done themselves a HUGE favour in the Eastern Conference standings. Currently the Raps are in 5th and the Wizards, even sans Agent Zero, are one spot behind in 6th. If there was ever a time this team could put some space between the top half of the standings and the bottom half this is it.

Heading into this two game mini-series the Raps have to be feeling good. They have won seven of their last ten and have won back-to-back games. Is it possible that we look back and see that Boston win as the launching point for another run late in the season? It sure could shape up that way.

The leader of the surge has obviously been Chris Bosh. Since his Youtube video he has been playing sick ball. Along with Calderon, these two guys have to take the lion’s share of credit for the recent solid play and both have started to get some serious love as a number of analysts on NBA TV have penciled both of them in for the All-Star game. Jose still has no true back=up and reports from ESPN this morning indicate that in fact, the Spurs have a better shot at Might Mouse than the Raptors and things have cooled on the Stoudamire front.

What makes this recent streak of solid basketball even more enjoyable is the fact that the team that is currently perched at top of the Atlantic Division standings is struggling. Boston has started to cool since its hot start now having lost five of their last 10. .500 doesn’t sound so bad but considering their winning percentage before this streak, it’s nice to know it’s not all going to be peaches and cream for that team. Now having to deal with a Garnett injury, Boston’s true colours may start to show. Of course given that Toronto remains 10.5 games back a lot is going to have to change between now and the end of the season if the Raps want to keep that Atlantic Division title. Speaking of Boston, Ian Thomasen has a great piece on the time he spent with the Raps while they were in Bean Town.

But rather than get too caught up in what is going on with the men in green, let’s focus on the Washington Wizards.

It has been an interesting story in Washington thus far. Despite having lost one of the most talented and entertaining players in the game to injury in Gilbert Arenas, guys like Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison have managed to pick-up the slack and keep this team moving in the right direction. Not enough can be said about Caron Butler as this guy has become a top-notch ball player. To think the Lakers gave this guy up for Kwame Brown is just ABSURD. Ever since he was slighted in the 2002 Draft (at least in his opinion) he has been dedicated to proving everyone wrong. His story is much like that of Paul Pierce who was also taken at the 10 spot a few years earlier. Lately Butler has been playing the best ball of his career even surpassing last year’s impressive play. As much as Bosh and Calderon should be in the All-Star game, Butler is a MUST HAVE. On top of Butler, Mr. Consistent Production aka Antawn Jamison is having another solid season. Heading into his free-agent year, Jamison continues to put-up solid numbers and has on a number of occasions been a thorn in the Raps side. Jack Armstrong was quoted yesterday as saying that he now believes that when all is said and done, it will be Jamison and not the man he was traded for, Vince Carter, who will have had the better NBA career. It’s hard to disagree with that considering Carter and the Nets (oh, here we go with the Jason Kidd wants out talk again) struggles.

The thing with the Wizards however is that outside of these two guys there is just not much there, which leads us into tonight’s three keys:

1. Make Someone Else Beat You - The focus for the Raps in this game defensively will strictly lie on Butler and Jamison. The Raps must keep these guys on the perimeter, deny them the ball and force their teammates to make plays. Double-teams on Butler should definitely be in the mix and keeping him away from the hoop is essential. The Raps need to force the action away from Jamison and Butler and take their chances on DeShawn Stevenson and Nick Young beating them. I like this match-up for the Raps as Moon is athletic enough to make it tough on Butler.

One of Howland's keys tonight - make Roger Mason Jr. and co beat you...

One of Howland's keys tonight - make Roger Mason Jr. and co beat you...

3. Take Advantage of Mismatches - This game is all about mismatches. Bargnani vs. Haywood, Bosh vs. Jamison and Calderon vs. Daniels are the most obvious and all three of these match-ups are ones the Dinos should win hands down. In fact you can even throw Parker vs. Stevenson into that mix. The Raps simply have more talent than the guys dressed in gold and there is no reason, after a few days off to prepare, that the Raps should not take advantage.

Just thinking about this match-up it’s hard not to think the Raps should take both of these games. The Raps are simply the better team and they need to prove that over the next two nights. Winning the next two games could also be very beneficial in the long term in that if the Raps manage to grab the three spot for the play-offs, this could very well be the team they could match-up with. Showing them who’s boss now can only help.

HOWLAND