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

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With Chicago and Toronto now tied for the final playoff spot, every single Raptors win will be needed if they hope to extend their season.  Against their athletic nemesis, the Raptors will have to find players who are willing to put their bodies at risk despite their injuries.

Well, there you have it.

With the Cavaliers resting LeBron James, the Chicago Bulls took full advantage of the situation and squeaked out a win to now become tied with our beloved home team. By the time the Raptors play the Bulls on the weekend, the Raptors may even be looking up at the Bulls in the standings.

But I'm not concerned, and I don't think you should be either.

I'm not going to begin every single preview until the end of the season about how much I think the Raptors would benefit from losing and getting the best lottery position.  Where would be the fun in that?  Instead, I'm not going to lose my head if the Raptors lose and as a team, the Raptors have not been ones to just roll over and die.  If there's one theme that has been here all year is that this team rarely mails it in.  Sometimes they make foolish decisions and yes, some players have a tendency to be a little bit lazier, but on average, the team does put on a pretty good effort.  I do not doubt that things will remain entertaining down the stretch as the Dinos will struggle to keep any kind of lead that they can get on the opposition. 

Especially if this remaining group responds the way I expect them to.

With Hedo Turkoglu listed as day-to-day with his fractured nose, here's hoping that some of the players that we've been calling for extended minutes will get some burn.  In fact once again, Jay Triano might luck upon his most athletic and energetic lineup thanks to Turkoglu's absence.  While there are a lot of other Raptors nursing injuries, (Wright and Jack to name a couple) the Raptors will also need to rely more on players such as Marco Belinelli and Sonny Weems.

And against Atlanta, that can't be a bad thing.

The Hawks enter into this game having lost to the lowly Pistons and are trying to enter into the playoffs on the right foot.  There will be challenges for the Hawks in the future as the continue to fight for playoff position, so I do not expect them to rest anyone unlike Cleveland the other night against the Bulls.  Toss in the possible return of the Hawks' top scorer, and the Raptors will have to remain aggressive to get a win.  Here are my keys for the game:

1) You have an opportunity now.  Prove you belong.
The Raptors will need to draw on some of their deeper bench players.  These are players that some of us have theorized would improve this team and it's now time to show that we were correct in our assessments.  As much as I like to talk about stats, (I really don't most days) the proof can only come by playing minutes.

If guys like Marcus Banks are called upon to give some useful minutes to relieve some strain on Jarrett Jack's ankle, then he has to pick things up without missing a beat.  A guy like Marco Belinelli who has statistics to prove that he'd be extremely useful to this team has to live up to his billing.  A guy like Andrea Bargnani who has been in Chris Bosh's shadow all this time has to prove that there can be life after Bosh and that he can do the hard work everyone needs him to do.  All of these guys have to step it up in the absence of others and need to prove that they can do what we believe that they can do.

2) Attack Joe Johnson early and hard
Joe Johnson is aiming to return to the Hawks lineup in today's game after injuring his thumb.  My suggestion?  Test him early and often.  It'll be important to see just how much has Johnson recovered from his injury.  Besides being one of the Hawks' top offensive threats, Johnson is also the leader in assists.  The Hawks run a lot of plays through him and if his hand that is not 100%, some aggressive D could lead to some turnovers.  It's important for the Raptors to show that they can jump on an opposition's weakness and use it to their advantage.

3) Sonny Weems is the pivotal player
After harping on it all year and having Franchise aggravated for most of it, Sonny Weems is turning out to be exactly the kind of the player the Raptors have needed since DeMar DeRozan's regression.  In four games, Weems has gone from a guy who was fighting for whatever minutes he could get, into a leading scorer who can also defend against the more athletic players in the league. 

To me, Weems is a perfect example of someone seizing what was given to him and running with it all the way to the basket for a slam dunk.  And against the Hawks, he's the kind of player the Raptors have to ride out if they hope to have a chance of winning.  Against players like Maurice Evans or Marvin Williams, Weems has the size and speed to keep up with them. 

Exactly what we've needed from the 2/3 position all year.