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3 In the Key: Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Atlanta

After getting beat down by the Buks the Raps face a very talented Atlanta Hawks team tonight for the second time this season.

Here's hoping the results of tonight's match-up are better than what transpired the last time these two teams came together.

Anyone who thought at the beginning of the season that race for the Eastern Conference championship was a three team race was wrong.  

The reason?

The Atlanta Hawks.

Now over a quarter of the way through the season it's become clear that the young fellas in Atlanta are now all grown-up...and the results are pretty impressive.

Going into tonight's match-up against the Raptors the Hawks have a record of 15-6 and are in third spot in the Eastern Conference. Some of their early season wins have come against the likes of Portland, Denver, Boston and Houston.

Of course none of this is news to those who sat and watched the Hawks dismantle the Toronto Raptors on December 2. It's crystal clear to Raptors fans just how good this Atlanta team really is.

It's not just the starting five getting it done for Atlanta either. The bench is looking solid as well. Off the pine the Hawks have a nice combination of athleticism (Jeff Teague and Mo Evans), veteran experience (Joe Smith) and scoring (Jamal Crawford) coming off the bench. Next to Orlando I like this team to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Actually, if they keep up their current level of play will any team in the East actually want to play one of Orlando, Boston, Cleveland or Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs? Is the prize for coming 5th-8th a four game sweep? Doesn't sound that appetizing does it.

All this to say the Raps have a long way to go before becoming truly relevant in the Eastern Conference. They have an even further distance to travel if they continue to play like they did in Milwaukee, no matter who is healthy and on the floor.

Sure it is all fine and good that the Raps have won three of their last four, but does anyone see a victory in sight from this point forward? The next four opponents are Atlanta, Houston, Miami and Orlando. The Raps will get no relief from the schedule until their match-up with the lowly Nets.

If by chance the Raps don't win any of their next four they will be 8 games below .500. That's a pretty big hole to climb out of even if the hopes have been whittled down to simply being a .500 team.

A .500 team. Think this is what BC had in mind when he remade this roster and spent all of his available loot?

My guess is no.

The Raps do have to play this game so let's take a look at the three keys:

1. Get Bosh Some Help: Chris Bosh cannot do it alone. We have all known that for sometime (hence the debate re: max dollars). As a result someone has to give this man some help. In fact a lot of guys are going to have to help if the Raps even want an opportunity to sniff victory. I fully expect Bosh to have a much stronger effort than that put forth in the last match-up which was easily his worst performance of the season. The spotlight shines brightest on Hedo Turkoglu here.

2. Treat The Paint Like Your Most Prized Possession: Someone on the Raptors needs to take offense to the fact that this team gives up the paint easier than an adult film it up. Who knows, maybe each of the Raps need to have a picture of their mother painted in the key in order to prevent others from walking all over them. Obviously I am grasping at straws here but I think the point is clear. The Raps have to protect the painted area. If they don't I fully expect the Hawks to hang another 147 on them.

3. Stay Positive: Even if the Raps find themselves down early they have to keep a positive attitude and continue to fight. If the fans see a team that lacks pride and a willingness to battle no matter what the circumstances it is safe to say that Raps tickets will be easy to find come 2010.