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Raptors look to avoid season series sweep vs. Atlanta: Preview, start time, and more

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After a tough showing against the Knicks on Sunday, the Raptors look to bounce back after a day of rest as they take on the injured Hawks in Tampa.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a decade the Hawks have an opportunity to sweep their season series against the Raptors. Those are not the words you want to read as Toronto struggles to stay in the conversation for an eighth straight postseason appearance.

The Hawks have been one of the hottest teams in the league as of late, having won seven of their last 10 games to move up into fourth place in the Eastern Conference. After finishing 14th in the conference last season, they’re currently on pace to clinch the Southeast division for the first time since 2014-15.

But let’s hold the brooms just a sec. The two losses the Raptors suffered to the Hawks this season have been closely contested to say the least — a 132-121 loss on the road, where the game was at a 5-point differential late in the fourth. And then there was their last encounter, a gut-wrenching three-point buzzer beater from Tony Snell to steal the win, 121-120.

Compared to those moments, this is now a different Toronto Raptors squad, featuring an early fan-favourite, Gary Trent Jr., and the addition of a new Quebec native, and actual centre, Khem Birch. Throw in Rodney Hood and Freddie Gillespie and the Hawks are going to need a new scouting report — despite having played the squad a mere six weeks ago.

The Hawks themselves will be less familiar too, suffering a slew of injuries in the past few weeks. Trae Young, Danilo Galinari, and Tony Snell all sat out of Sunday’s 105-101 win against the Hornets with day-to-day injuries. But with their recent trade of Rajon Rondo for Lou Williams, the Hawks essentially traded ball control for a heap of scoring that the Raptors will have to watch out for.

For the Raptors, with new faces also comes the return of needed veterans. Kyle Lowry made his return to the lineup against the Knicks on Sunday, back after missing six games, while Pascal Siakam was available after a sitting out the front-end of a back-to-back. It should be mentioned that Pascal’s return on the weekend was rusty to say the least — it’s almost as if rest has the opposite effect on him. He was 1-for-11 at half against the Knicks, ending the game with 16 points (5-of-18 FG), seven assists, five turnovers and two blocks. For the eighth time in his career, he failed to grab a single board in 35 minutes of action on the floor.

Hopefully with a day’s rest, the Raptors can put their struggles behind them. We’re going to need them to as we wind down into the last quarter of the season with plenty still on the line. Here are tonight’s details.

Where to Watch:

TSN, 7:30 PM EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher

Atlanta – Brandon Goodwin, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Solomon Hill, Kevin Huerter, Clint Capela

Injuries:

Toronto – Fred VanVleet (hip – out), Jalen Harris (hip – doubtful), Paul Watson (COVID-19 protocols – doubtful)

Atlanta – Kris Dunn (ankle – out), Danilo Galinari (foot – doubtful), Trae Young (calf – questionable), Tony Snell (ankle – out), John Collins (ankle – out), De’Andre Hunter (knee – out), Cam Reddish (Achilles – out)

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Finding Rhythm

Two words that could not be overstated for this season, much of the Raptors’ woes all year have come down to a lack of rhythm. Whether that’s a new home, weird and tighter travelling schedules, COVID protocols, injuries, or trades — the Raptors have had a slew of reasons for their inconsistencies.

But as the season winds down, and with the playoffs on the horizon, the flow of their game needs to come now.

This past weekend is a great example; after dropping a franchise-record 87 first-half points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, the squad found themselves stuck in Madison Square Garden, being held to just 42 points in the first-half against the Knicks a day later.

We already talked about Siakam’s slump, but it was the same story line for much of the roster in the first-half. Lowry was the only player to really find his rhythm early, a cool 14 points (3-of-7 FG) while the rest of the squad combined for 28 points. Will that change to tonight? Which version of the team will we see?

The Chris Boucher Show?

It seems like every now and then, a Raptor tends to shine against a specific opponent, Norman Powell against Milwaukee, Marc Gasol against Orlando (really against Vucevic), and now Chris Boucher dominating the Hawks.

Yes, dominating.

In this season series alone, he’s dropped 29 points on both occasions, averaging 71.4 percent shooting from the floor, to go with two blocks per game. It’s been no secret that his has been his coming out season, Boucher is currently dropping career-highs in points per game, blocks per game (ranks fifth in the league with 2.0 per game), total rebounds, and field goal percentage. All while trying to shore up the Raptors’ frontcourt needs.

But that changes now. With the emergence of Khem Birch, Boucher now has more options and freedom to dominate the paint, launch from deep, and be the rim protector without having to guard the other team’s primary centre.

We didn’t get to see much of this against the Knicks — Birch’s first appearance for the Raptors — but it could very well unfold tonight.

The Race for 10th

Yes, despite how tough it’s been to watch the Raptors play lately, they’re still in a position to make a playoff push. Crazy, right? The Raptors only have 18 games remainder on their calendar and currently sit two games back of 10th seed Chicago.

For those that need a quick refresher, please see the image below.

Play-In Tournament Format/NBA.com

With 18 games remaining, the Raptors have the fourth toughest schedule of remaining games in the NBA, with both the Brooklyn Nets and LA Clippers appearing twice on their docket. But the Bulls aren’t far behind with the ninth toughest schedule.

What the Raptors will be weary of are the Washington Wizards (12th place in the East) and the Cavaliers (13th place in the East). At the same time, the Wizards who sit a half-game back, and the Cavaliers who sit a game-and-a-half behind the Raptors have the fourth and fifth easiest remaining schedules, respectively. For even more context, the ninth-placed Indiana Pacers have the 20th toughest schedule, and are less likely to fall from their spot.

TL;DR: the Raptors have to win a lot of their remaining games to clinch the 10th spot.