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Raptors and Hawks both look to continue Eastern Conference ascent: Preview, start time and more

The Raptors defeated the Hawks on Monday as part of their current four-game winning streak. Now, with Trae Young back in the lineup, the Hawks look to get even.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s been a wild week for the Toronto Raptors who, with tonight’s game, are completing a stretch of six games against the same three Eastern Conference opponents: the first-place Chicago Bulls, the second-place Miami Heat, and the Atlanta Hawks, who’ve won eight of their last nine games. The one loss? Yup, that was against Toronto.

This time around, however, Atlanta should look rather different as Trae Young is expected to be active. He was active last night, scoring 43 points en route to a victory against the league-best Phoenix Suns, and his presence will completely shake up how the Raptors gameplan for this matchup.

Both teams are on the second night of a back-to-back. Both teams are scorching hot right now and climbing up the Eastern Conference standings. We’re 50 games into the season and the Raptors are 4.5 games out of first. The Hawks are just 2.5 behind the Raps. Games like these are crucial to the playoff seeding, which is as important as ever with the play-in tournament.

On Monday, Gary Trent hit nine threes and the Raptors beat the Hawks by six. They’ll need some more greatness tonight against a hungry opponent with a returning superstar and superior depth. Will they bring it?

Here are tonight’s details.

Where to Watch:

TSN4/5, 7:30 PM EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal SIakam

Atlanta – Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Clint Capela

Injuries:

Toronto – Goran Dragic (personal – out)

Atlanta – Lou Williams (back – out), John Collins (shoulder – questionable)

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Freddy All-Star!

One of this season’s highlights has undoubtedly been Fred VanVleet’s emergence, not only as the leader of the team, but also as a scorer, playmaker, and load-bearer for a team with no other real point guard to speak of. He has been truly magnificent, and absolutely crucial to the Raptors’ success. So, when the final All-Star spot was dramatically announced as Fred VanVleet — well, it felt pretty damn good. DeMar DeRozan being in the building for the announcement made it all the more special. (If only there could’ve been a sold-out crowd to chant “Freddy.” *sighs*)

Seriously, though, VanVleet has one of the most inspiring journeys in the league. From going undrafted, to playing a key role in an NBA title, to making an All-Star team, he’s proved doubters wrong every step of the way. Who needs the NBA Draft when you can just skip to the All-Star Draft?

Full Health???

Khem Birch is back and for the first time in eight years, the Raptors are (I think) fully healthy! A fact: the Raptors’ top eight players (FVV-Trent-Barnes-Anunoby-Siakam + Boucher-Achiuwa-Birch [what is roster balance?]) have all played together in just 5 out of the team’s 50 games this season. As we are all aware, the Raptors are sorely lacking in depth, so having their entire roster available to them lessens the need to play guys who are minuses, while also limiting the need to play the starters 40+ minutes... theoretically.

But Khem Birch only played four minutes last game, and will be eased back into the rotation after being sidelined following surgery for a broken nose. (Patience is key, but I’m excited to watch Birch get back to 20+ minutes of solid defense and spamming the push shots.) And while an eight-man rotation isn’t tiny, the imbalance of having one point guard and three shooters means Nick Nurse will either need to a) run some funky lineups or b) play a few guys 40+ minutes. This kind of minutes load makes me nervous and looks exhausting. At the same time, these are big games and watching winning basketball is pretty amazing! The current Raptors’ only hope of playing winning basketball is sticking to an airtight, late-April type rotation.

The Trade Deadline Looms

The trade deadline is on February 10, less than a week away. While the core of the roster is quite safe and the likeliest candidate to depart is basically an honourary member of the. Miami Heat already, the deadline is the deadline and Masai Ujiri is Masai Ujiri. Two things are clear: 1) This team is too good to tank. 2) The starters need more help. Sure, a big difference-making centre would be a cool addition to the starting lineup, but someone who can just play 20 minutes and hit some shots would fill such an important role they’d get their jersey retired within a year. Our own Daniel Hackett has some ideas right here — including some former Raptors.

Adding players does require sending them, though. There’s a chance that we’re watching the last games featuring this exact Raptors squad (beyond Dragic). It’s been an interesting ride, a sometimes frustrating ride, but also a cool, experimental, and sometimes bonkers one. Who knows which players will still be on the roster in a week’s time. Say your good-byes just in case!