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

With the excitement of their recent win over the Bulls firmly forgotten after two straight losses at home, the Toronto Raptors will try and get back on track against the Hornets tonight.  The HQ's Sasha Kalra previews tonight's action...

The NHL Trade Deadline has come and gone in Toronto and we are now reminded that there is a basketball team north of the border.

Tonight the Dinos play host to a New Orleans Hornets team that has surprised many this season. The Western Conference is a notoriously tough place for a "middle of the pack" team to ply their trade. Many of the NBA's juggernauts reside out west and making the playoffs requires close to a 50 win season. The Hornets were slated by many to be in the midst of a transition this year. The acquisition of Emeka Okfafor was scrutinized and the media were having a field day predicting Chris Paul's next destination.

But here they are with a mark of 35-26, sitting 5th in their conference. The 4 teams ahead of them - the Spurs, Lakers, Thunder and Mavericks - expect to be lifting a championship come May and the Hornets have assumed their "best of the rest" title. Okafor has grown into his role and Marco Belinelli (remember him?) has emerged as a secondary scoring option. Factor in the dynamism of Trevor Ariza and the usual impact from Chris Paul and David West and you have a legitimate playoff darkhorse.

But enough about the Hornets, this is a Raptors website. It was a case of "old habits returning" this weekend, as the team was shellacked by the Suns and collapsed in the 2nd half against the Mavericks. As Franchise mentioned earlier, there are arguably 7 "projects" on this team and when minutes are being given to one-dimensional veterans it certainly doesn't help one get a sense of what sort of potential building blocks the team might have.

Winning tonight's game won't be an easy feat but it would be a perfect pick-me-up before the team heads to London to play Deron Williams (still feels weird saying that) and the Nets.

Without further ado here are the 3 keys:

1 . Bench production.  When analyzing the few wins that this team have managed to accumulate this season one constant seems to keep coming up. That would be the team's bench. When they play well the team seems to win. It will be up to guys like Jerryd Bayless, Sonny Weems, Ed Davis and Leandro Barbosa to be game-changers when they step on the court. The Hornets have been on a bit of a slump lately going 3-7 in their last 10 games and if the Raptors' bench plays smartly with energy and intensity, it will give this team a great chance to get a win.

2 . Point Guard play.  Jose Calderon has been playing great ball as of late and brings a sense of consistency to this team. Jerryd Bayless has shown the ability to amaze and to frustrate in his role as a backup point guard and fans are hoping that eventually the "amaze" potential outweighs the "frustrate" potential. WIth Chris Paul coming into town, both Raptor guards will need to be on their game from the opening whistle. In fact the Paul-Calderon match-up represents the fourth and fifth best assist-men in the league currently.  Paul is a threat as long as he remains on the court and his ability to steal the ball and play defence are often overlooked. The NBA seem to be giving the Raps a showcase of great point guards as of late with Rose, Nash, Kidd and now Paul coming to town (with Deron to follow).

3 . Defend as a team.  Chris Paul will look to get in the lane at will and force one of the Raptor's big men to come over and help. It will be up to the rest of the team to rotate on their assignments and ensure that none of their shooters are afforded open looks on a consistent basis. This was executed perfectly against the Bulls last week and it led to a couple of shot clock violations and fast break opportunities.

The Hornets aren't a great offensive club (4th worst points-per-game average in the league) but are one of the top defensive units in the NBA.   Considering that Toronto isn't much better offensively in terms of true-shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, it's therefore paramount that the Dinos keep NO's offence at bay.

As well, the Hornets can get on the glass with the best of them.  Emeka Okafor ate this team alive last time they played, and a good chunk of his productivity was created off of Toronto's lax perimeter D.  With Reggie Evans still a game or two away from returning, the heavy lifting will likely fall on Andrea Bargnani (assuming he plays), Ed Davis and Amir Johnson and therefore it's preferable to get solid team D on the perimeter to prevent too many easy dunk opps for Okafor and co.

Sasha Kalra