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Raptors look to make it four-straight, visit Knicks at MSG: Preview, Start Time, and more

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Four-straight wins and third in the East are on the line in New York Monday night.

NBA: New York Knicks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Consider the dog days over. In the lead-up to the All-Star break, watching the Raptors started to feel like a chore. Replacing the typical game-day antsiness was a feeling of dread in anticipation of the uneven Raptors’ performance that was sure to come.

A mental breather and a pair of swell-fitting additions have pumped new platelets into the team’s bloodstream. The seeds for a strong stretch run have been planted with a pair of consecutive wins out of the break. Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have brought with them a new layer of versatility for Dwane Casey to play around with, and that has translated into a renewed level of defensive effort from guys up and down the roster.

Monday brings with it an opportunity for the Raptors to pounce on a truly putrid Knicks team and continue their pursuit of the Celtics and Wizards in the Eastern Conference standings. Here’s what you need to watch for.

Kyle Lowry’s Status

Cory Joseph has acquitted himself well as Kyle Lowry’s understudy in the last two games. His defense on Isaiah Thomas on Friday was so sublime it drew praise from Al Horford, and he’s ably chipped in 12.5 points and 6.0 assists under a heavy minutes load. But even Joseph’s best game can’t live up to the lofty standards Lowry sets on a nightly basis. Getting Lowry back in the fold and in tune with the new additions — prospective pick-and-roll partner Ibaka in particular — is vital to the Raptors hitting peak effectiveness. Understatement of the century, I know.

Mercifully, it sounds as though his wrist injury isn’t too serious, and he is officially day-to-day. The Raptors have had issues with players prematurely stepping back on the court already this year. While a return to the lineup for Lowry would be welcomed, perhaps the wise course of action is to sit him out against New York in hopes of having him ready to go for this week’s back-to-back with Washington.

The chase for the 2-Seed is on

Speaking of the Wizards, a pair of losses for Scott Brooks’ club out of the break has already allowed the Raptors to pull into a virtual tie with them in the standings. A win on Monday would guarantee the Raptors of at least that heading into Wednesday’s match-up with Washington. Dropping games to laughing stocks like the Knicks is not something the Raptors can afford anymore. With just 23 games to go, every win matters.

Roping in the Celtics is a more ambitious goal, but Friday’s win made it significantly more realistic. Boston narrowly escaped the Pistons on Sunday and holds a three-game cushion on Toronto and Washington going in to tonight’s action. Where the Raptors are free of games against the league’s top tier, Boston plays games against Cleveland, Golden State and the now-healthy Clippers in the next 10 days. Toronto doesn’t control their own destiny with no games remaining against their Atlantic Division rivals, but the all-important two-seed (and Cleveland-free playoff bracket until the Eastern Conference Finals) is within reach as long as the Raptors don’t squander games like tonight’s.

Front Court Combos

Options are nice, aren’t they? Before the arrival of Ibaka and Tucker, Casey was handcuffed when trying to formulate his crunch time lineups. It was rare that he could find a perfect front court pair with Patrick Patterson missing time and the flaws present in the games of Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira.

Ibaka has closed the last two games at centre for the Raptors to great effect. A shot-blocking, floor-spacing big man like Ibaka can fit seamlessly with all sorts of front court partners. A trio of super-small-sample looks with Patterson, Tucker and Jonas next to Ibaka have all yielded encouraging NET results early in his Raptors tenure. The bounty of options might create a crunch for guys who are playing well — for example, Jonas Valanciunas on Sunday against Portland — but versatility is king in today’s NBA. That Casey will get to roll out lineups specifically geared for a wide array of late-game situations is a a luxury that didn’t exist in Toronto two weeks ago.

Watching for which combos Casey deploys will be of nightly interest from here on out.

Where to Watch: TSN 1-4, 7:00pm EST