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3 in the Key - Raptors Game-Day Preview vs. Celtics

Editor's Note:  The HQ is expanding!  Since about the end of last season it became clear to the team that they could use a few extra resources to help on the content side, so last month they put out the call to Ryerson's School of Journalism here in Toronto, seeking interns.  They've narrowed their list down to a few final candidates, but want readers help in deciding who eventually rounds out the team.  To that end, the HQ will be posting work from the finalists, and at the end of it, will seek feedback from you, the readers, as to who should get the gig!

We had our first intern submission earlier this week, here's our second courtesy of Charles Blouin-Gascon, contestant number two...



Are we there yet?

After 4 straight wins, is it okay for Toronto Raptors fans to get genuinely excited about their team? Already?

A few months ago, Chris Bosh piggybacked on Dwyane Wade's back all the way to South Beach and seemingly left the Raptors in disarray in his trail. Early on this season, this sure seemed the case. At 2-9, the Raptors were more likely to win the lottery for Harrison Barnes in NBA's 2011 draft than a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season. Now with a record of 6-9, Toronto is just a half-game away from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and playing its best game of the young season.

In both cases, I give a one-word advice: chill.

The NBA regular season is a long ride where every team will go through ups and downs; just ask LeBron James. The Raptors will most likely stay in the hunt for a final playoff spot until the end of the year and this should make for an exciting season for fans packing the Air Canada Centre. The point is that the season is still too young to draw any conclusions about the Raptors, especially after the acquisition of Peja Stojakovic and Jerryd Bayless.

That being said, the Raptors play with more confidence this season: the departure of the player formerly known as Chris Bosh has forced many of the Raps to step up because the star player of the team, the one who was most feared by opposing teams, is gone. Head coach Jay Triano has had no choice but to preach a team effort and give opportunities for new leaders to emerge.

Less is more, you could say. (Meanwhile, Bosh has learned the hard way that, in South Beach, more is apparently less.)

This season, Triano has established a reliable rotation where about eight players see significant action every game and contribute to the outcome. DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems have certainly opened the eyes of many with their strong play and it would not surprise me to see either player win the award for the league's most improved. That is, if they continue for the rest of the season.

This would start tonight, with a road game in Boston against the Celtics. If the rematch is anything like the first, five days ago in Toronto, fans should tune in. Here are the keys to tonight's game.

1) Going on the road - The Eastern Conference currently has six teams within less than two games of the 8th place Cleveland Cavaliers. If the standings stay this close throughout the season, the ability of any team to go to the playoffs might be tied to its ability to win games away from home.

While the Raptors have only two such victories since the beginning of the season, one was against the Orlando Magic; this should boost team confidence. At 6-1, the Celtics are definitely a team that plays well at home but so wasthe Magic. Therefore, Triano can tell his players that they are capable of pulling an upset.

2) Group effort - While the Raptors are capable of beating the Celtics and of winning games away from the ACC, they can't think that it is easy to do. Raptors fans no doubt remember that Sunday's win was contested until the final whistle and could have been a crushing defeat had Paul Pierce's jumper not missed. For that reason, Boston will definitely look to avenge last Sunday's loss and will likely open the game on a high note.

Meanwhile, the Raptors must offer a balanced effort similar to that of five days ago where five players scored in double figures, led by Andrea Bargnani's game-high 29 points. It is still unsure who Toronto's alpha dog is, who demands the last shot down the stretch of close games; this can be both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, for tonight's game to go well Triano must hope that it is the former.

3) Depleted Celtics - You should never use injuries as an excuse, but they are the eternal great equalizer. To think that Rajon Rondo would not have helped the Celtics, five days ago, is wrong because he would have. This is not to say that the Celtics would have won the game with Rondo available, but he definitely would have helped.

Early reports say that Rondo will sit out tonight's game and so will Delonte West and his broken right wrist. The Celtics, basically, are not only old but now depleted by injuries as well. You never want to play a smart, veteran and great defensive team like the Celtics but doing so while battling injuries is always a challenging proposition.

Going back to the question at the top of this article then, "are we there yet?"

Maybe not.

But a big win tonight would certainly continue things in the right direction.