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3 in the Key - Raptors' Game-Day Preview vs. Rockets

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The Toronto Raptors look to duplicate the success of their big win over the Dallas Mavericks tonight against the Houston Rockets.

According to ESPN's accuscore predictor, the Raptors have only a 23% chance of winning tonight's match against the Rockets.

Of course, the odds were even worse than that Tuesday night vs. the Mavs, and we know how that turned out.

The undermanned Raps took it to the Mavs in a surprising win, and certainly will be looking to build on that this evening with another surprising win.

Surprising?

Well although Toronto has already beaten Houston this season, 106 to 96 back in November, the Rockets weren't exactly at full strength.  Now however, the team has its core back (minus Yao Ming of course) and despite a loss Wednesday night to Miami, have won five of their last six and are slowly crawling back towards playoff contention in the West.

Even in the loss to Miami the Rockets looked pretty sharp.

They scored more points against the Heat than any other opponent has this young NBA season, and kept it close up until the final buzzer.

Considering Toronto looks to be quite short-handed yet again tonight, this New Year's Eve match-up looks to be yet another tough test for the Dinos.

Here are our game-day 3 keys:

1)  Team effort.  This was one of the most impressive things about Tuesday's win over the Mavericks.  There may have only been 7 guys playing, but every one of them made major contributions in the win.  Calderon apparently is likely to play this evening, but considering that Andrea Bargnani is out for sure,  Jerryd Bayless and Sonny Weems are day-to-day, and Leandro Barbosa and Amir Johnson are game-time decisions at this point,  Toronto is going to need another big team effort this evening and we may even see Ronald Dupree and Solomon Alabi pressed into key minutes.  The Rockets don't rely on just one player to do their damage so the Raps need to counter with their best complete effort as well.

2)  Defence.  This key is one that we could probably use for every game but it's a point that's usually quite moot. The Raps just aren't even a mediocre defensive team and...

...wait...

They held the Mavericks to 41% shooting?

Yes, after seeing the defensive work by the Dinos against Dallas it's obvious that this team can play D, and good D at that, but for various reasons it rarely seems to happen.  It has to tonight as the Rockets are averaging nearly 106 points a game on offence, a good 6 points more than the traditionally "offensive-minded" Raps!  This isn't going to be a game then that Toronto can just shoot itself out of, especially minus top scoring threats like Bargnani, so the club will need to get stops in order to have a chance to win.

3)  Paint play.  No, not the type you did in kindergarten.  Toronto had a distinct advantage in their match against Dallas because sans Dirk, the Mavs had very little presence down low, and were forced to settle for a great number of jump shots.

The Rockets have lots of options in the paint, including stud Luis Scola, and also have players like Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin who excel at getting to the hoop and the free throw line.  Toronto's therefore got to ensure Scola faces some resistance down low (maybe Joey Dorsey wants a little revenge on his old club) and the Raps' perimeter D needs to be as tight as possible as well to prevent forays to the hoop.

In addition, while Houston isn't a great rebounding club (they sit about middle of the league in rebounding rate), the Raps can't afford to give the Rockets many second opportunities considering the way Houston's offence is humming right now.

This one might be decided on the strength of available talent, but I think when all is said and done, the story in the paint will be the game's determining factor.