NBA Toronto Raptors

5 Keys to Toronto Raptors’ 2014 Title Hopes

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5 Keys to Toronto Raptors' 2014 Title Hopes

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For all of those who currently reside in Miami or Oklahoma City, I will give you a minute to clean up the mess you just made spitting out that fresh cup of coffee after reading this article's headline.

Make no mistake about it: the Toronto Raptors are tittle contenders. With an Eastern Conference that is chock full of pretenders, the Raptors plan to take full advantage. A playoff juggernaut is taking shape; no longer is Tower City an NBA punchline.

I remember the days when Toronto was on the verge of getting league-wide recognition for the very first time and was actually getting showcased on NBC’s Game of the Week national broadcasts. Vince Carter’s popularity was growing to iconic levels along with cousin and fellow rising star Tracy McGrady as his right-hand-man. After McGrady fled to Orlando and the mockery of a trade that sent Carter packing to New Jersey was made, those heights of success began to unravel and left fans with only small doses of hope to enjoy during the Chris Bosh era. The franchise eventually transformed into yearly flop artists – and I’m not talking about Manu Ginobili or Anderson Varejao. The team had spent an eternity stuck in laughingstock limbo. Let’s just say the selection of Rafael Araujo over the likes of Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith didn't quite turn out as planned.

However, the end of this tunnel just might have some light. Snap your fingers to the 2013-14 season, and we are witnessing a team and city reborn. The Raptors are once again being held to a higher standard. This organization has not had this much respect on a night-in, night-out basis since the days of Charles Oakley’s trademark elbow smashes in the paint.

Here are five keys to the Raptors' hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy and the streets of Toronto being under siege come early June.

Mike Holian is a Writer for Follow him on Twitter @TheMikeLevel, "Like" him on Facebook and add him to your Google network.

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5. Tyler Hansbrough Stays Healthy

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Look for Tyler Hansbrough's minutes to increase when the season's second half gets underway, as he gets his feet back under him since returning from his latest ankle injury. This squad doesn't need a double-double every night from the rambunctious power forward, and the box score from the team's recent tilt with the Atlanta Hawks does not do him justice. His impact was undeniable.

When Toronto enters the war zone that is the NBA playoffs, Hansbrough will have his attributes on full display, and it will set the tone for postseason success.

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4. Terrence Ross Continues His Rise To Stardom

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On the night of Jan. 25 in a matchup against the Western Conference powerhouse Los Angeles Clippers, Terrence Ross showed the basketball world what he's made of. Even Bryan Colangelo can bank one in without calling it.

As Toronto marches towards the postseason, Ross' role is in need of expansion. Teams are going to throw the house at the likes of Derozan, and the youngster must be ready to capitalize.

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3. Masai Ujiri Tweaks At The Deadline

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As the trade deadline lurks in the background, many questions still remain unanswered. Is Masai Ujiri satisfied with the current roster, or is there a major maneuver in the works? One thing is for certain: the team as is would welcome a few added touch-ups. Depth at the point guard position has become an issue as fans are subjected to Greivis Vasquez launching his trademark miracle floaters with no offensive rebounders in sight far too often. There is also the matter of that giant elephant in the room, Kyle Lowry. How Ujiri handles this situation will determine the fate of this franchise moving forward.

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2. Patrick Patterson Remains The Unsung Hero

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Patrick Patterson had become an afterthought across the NBA. Well, the fundamentally sound forward has found new life in Toronto. In 31 games wearing the red and black, he is averaging 10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks all in just 22.9 minutes a game -- a solid contribution in the PER rankings at a 15.48 per minute clip. To put that in perspective, the likes of Jeremy Lamb registers a 15.15 and the league average is set at 13.46.

Toronto not only got a solid all-around contributor in the Sacramento deal, but I would add "downright steal "to that description. Patterson is the perfect piece for any team's playoff push.

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1. Kyle Lowry Must Not Be Shipped Out Of Town

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In order to give all of the previously mentioned components legs, you need someone to drive the bus. A major force that has put these wheels in motion is the play of breakout floor general Kyle Lowry.

It’s not hard to see that he’s found a home and finally has the keys to his ride without sharing the spotlight. Odds are the Lowry trade situation will still be unfolding well into the offseason, but the smart money would be that Lowry actually wants to stay. If the Raptors' are serious about making a run in 2014, the potential of a Lowry deal should already be a dead issue in Toronto's front office.