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

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These folks need to learn how to bet on Raptors' red...

These folks need to learn how to bet on Raptors' red...

I’m pretty sure I’m awake but not quite sure:

a) What day it is.
b) What time it is.
c) Why I keep hearing the dinging of slot machines in my head.

Yep, Howland and I are back from our Vegas trip and while we didn’t get to film the Heat game recap like we wanted to in the sports book, we did have a good time and some of us even had a good run at the roulette table…

…thanks to the Raptors.

In what was one of the funniest parts of our excursion, our Halifax associate, the Big Chill, started playing only on red his first night, in what we were referring to as "Raptors red." Not only did he start hitting a streak, but it got to the point at Caesar’s Palace where red had come up so many times in a row that people started laying down huge bets on black against him.

And they kept losing.

All the while he would tell the other players "look, you gotta hop on the red train, it’s Raptors’ red all day."

And after about ten straight reds we had a huge crowd around us and a number of guys’ girlfriends urging their significant others to stop betting on black ha ha.

It even got to the point where when we switched to the numbers, numbers like Pape Sow’s number 9, Chris Bosh’s number 4, and various others were seeing lots of action.

Bottom line?

You really can’t go wrong using the Raptors’ as your betting scheme!

A few links before we swing into our compadre Vicious D’s preview of tonight’s game. (Big shout out to him for holding down the fort while we were away.)

First off, a great read from yesterday’s Toronto Sun that was actually written by one of our regular readers, (who also puts in time as an occasional impromtu copy-editor) which discusses the fervor of the Raptors’ online fan-base.

It’s great to see the online support this team gets and the article is further proof that Toronto has the best fan-base in the business.

Also, from the Sun, it appears that an Australian newspaper has been reporting that Nathan Jawai’s NBA career may sadly be over. He reportedly has an enlarged heart and if his condition does not improve over the next six weeks, it might be the end of the line for the "Aussie Shaq."

From around the NBA blogoshpere, the weekly power rankings are up at True Blue Jazz.

The Raptors took a dip both here and on ESPN.com’s weekly poll.

There's a tough schedule of games on the immediate horizon so hopefully a couple solid wins over the next week will buoy the squad…

FRANCHISE

So, it'll be part one of the two part swing through the State of Florida.

Out of all the match ups for the past couple years, I've always been interested in how the Raptors stack up against the Magic. This will be the first time these two teams meet since their playoff battle last year, and the Raptors will undoubtedly be looking to sending a message that they've improved. A year ago, the Raptors smacked New Jersey around after their first round exit the previous year, so can we hope for the same against the Magic?

My magic 8-ball says "not likely".

After a sluggish start, the Magic have become a top team defensively. At 93.3 points per game, only teams such as Utah, Houston, and Boston are ahead of them in lowest opponent point totals. The Magic are the second team overall in the Eastern Conference in that category. Toss in the NBA's newest "Superman", Dwight Howard with the great mind of Stan Van Gundy, and the Raptors will have to do more than just go through the motions...

...especially since Jose is still being listed as a game-time decision.

Actually, this will indeed be a nice little test to see how the newly reformed starting unit really handles pressure. Unlike the Miami Heat, the Magic have starters that have cohesion, as well as a front court that will not be a push-over. In fact, it's kinda ironic that Bargnani will be starting at the three again, especially considering how epic of a failure the experiment was last year in the playoffs.

Anyways, let's get down to business:

1) Exploit Dwight Howard's Weaknesses -

By now, I'd hope everyone knows exactly how to play Dwight Howard. Rasho Nesterovic was simply a master at pushing Dwight Howard out to an ineffective range, so it'll be up to Jermaine O'Neal to play him the same way. The key of course, is to make Howard take lots of shots that are mostly of the face-up variety, and as far as possible away from the basket. In the instance he gets into your interior, don't be afraid to hack him and send him to the free throw line.

It'll be a test for Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Bosh to handle him for the entire game, but as long as they follow the rules, the Raptors should be relatively safe. I expect to see lots of Kris Humphries mixing it up in there as well, and possibly less of Bargnani at the 3 if the front court quickly racks up fouls. How they play Howard and choose to use their fouls will determine a lot about rotations in today's game. But let's face it, there's just no easy way to wrestle around a guy as strong and physically imposing as Howard.

Perhaps the biggest test will be for Jermaine O'Neal who has yet to face up against a power center with so much skill. Sure, Kevin Garnett was a lot to handle, but he's nowhere near as strong as Howard is. It's therefore imperative that the Raptors attack the basket and rack up lots of fouls on Howard to take him out of his game. I look forward to seeing Jermaine O'Neal draw some fouls against the big Man-Child.

Jermaine O'Neal is going to have his work cut out for him tonight...

Jermaine O'Neal is going to have his work cut out for him tonight...

2) Keep the Secondaries Away From the Glass -

Yes, Dwight Howard can kill you on the glass, but the rest of the Magic aren't averaging shady numbers either. With all starters averaging at least three rebounds per game and a very dangerous Tony Battie coming off the bench, the Raptors will need a special effort from their wings to control and fight for rebounds.

In fact, to take advantage of their superior field goal % advantage against the Magic, the Raptors have to make sure that they maximize the amount of possessions they have within the game by getting as many rebounds as possible. There just can't be sloppy box outs by Jamario Moon this game as even players such as Jameer Nelson can average four rebounds per game. Toss in the fact that players such as Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu will burn you on second chance point opportunities, and the Raptors need to make sure they win the battle of hustle plays. Which leads us to...

3) Stay on Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu -

You know, I'm not going to envy Bargnani for the night. I get the feeling that if he's not chasing both Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu on the defensive end, he's going to banging bodies with Tony Battie and Dwight Howard. In any case, both Lewis and Turkoglu are dangerous threats that can go off at any particular time. Averaging 34 points between them, the Raptors have to make sure at least one of the two is forcing up low percentage shots.

In fact, it's surprising that Turkoglu's 3-point shooting has been particularly bad this year. Shooting only 29 percent, the Raptors should still be wary of his touch. But more importantly, the Raptors must be aggressive on switches and pick and rolls that will free up Pietrus and Nelson. Pietrus in particular, is the only Magic player to be shooting above 40% (45.2%) from beyond the arc, so the Raptors must close out on him.

However on the flip side, the Raptors should be able to exploit match-ups against both Lewis and Turkoglu. Barganani's length in particular, along with his shooting touch and newfound aggressiveness, will make it difficult for both players to guard him. If Andrea attacks and slashes through the paint, or posts up, neither player should be able to stop him consistently. If Bosh and Bargnani manage to set picks for each other, it may cause a long night for Turkoglu who doesn't have the strength to defend either big man. The added effect of course, is that it's a perfect way to wear down the legs of both Lewis and Turkoglu; players that excel at moving without the ball.

In many ways, the Magic are the kind of dangerous team that the Raptors should be able to beat. Both teams match up fairly well and seem to compliment each other. Even though the Magic won last year's playoff series, I've always felt the Raptors had the Magic's number throughout the regular season. If the Raptors' chemistry hadn't fallen apart so badly before the playoffs and if they hadn't completely lost their identity, the outcome of the series would not have been as short and bitter.

Instead, the Raptors enter another season looking to get through the first round of the playoffs.

Sounds a lot like Kevin Garnett's first years in Minny, doesn't it?

However, that should give this Raptors team all the perrogative it needs to beat the Magic. If you want to prove that you're better than last year's team, you're going to have to start correcting some of those mistakes you made the previous year.

Numero Uno?

Send a message to the Magic.

Vicious D