The Hornets' last game, a 103-102 squeaker against the Knicks, feels like it happened weeks ago. Given that it also marked the endpoint of a ten-game losing streak, you could be forgiven for forgetting it even happened, especially given the big lead the Hornets blew in the fourth quarter (although, yes, that Kemba Walker final shot was terrific). Finally, the Hornets are back in action tonight in a very winnable game against the Boston Celtics.
The current identity of the Celtics, to say nothing of their 7-13 record, might cause you to overlook them, but they have a fairly solid starting lineup. Rajon Rondo is still a passing wizard, and although Jeff Green isn't shooting the ball like he does during his best seasons, he's still a threat any time he gets the ball. Meanwhile, Avery Bradley continues to be a consistent contributor, Kelly Olynyk is a solid option as a stretch forward/center, and Jared Sullinger is quietly having a breakout season. Their most common bench options include a pair of three-point threats in Evan Turner and Marcus Thornton, and two solid bench bigs in Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass. Even deeper on their bench is Mr. Bobcat himself, Gerald Wallace, who will surely get a warm reception from the crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena if he enters the game.
The Celtics play an up-tempo style that rates as the fastest pace in the league, and it shows if you look at their strengths and weaknesses a bit. While they're pretty good at protecting the ball (perhaps as a consequence of shooting early in their possessions), they grab offensive rebounds at a rate only slightly higher than that of the Hornets (which is to say: not often), and they get to the line very rarely, ranking 28th in the NBA in free throws per field goal attempt. Defensively, like the Hornets, they clean up the glass and try not to foul (though they will cause contact more often than the Charlotte defense), but don't cause a lot of turnovers, with most of them coming at the hands of Rondo. That said, the Celtics really struggle at giving up high-percentage shots, allowing opponents to shoot .395 from beyond the arc (somehow, this isn't the worst in the league), so they either have terrible luck, or they're terrible at perimeter defense. Possibly both.
Where can the Hornets find an edge? Thankfully, the Celtics aren't very good at shooting the longball (although I'm sure Jeff Green would try to convince you otherwise), which might give the Hornets defense an opportunity to play tighter, more controlled defense inside the perimeter-- a situation that would sit well with Steve Clifford, both because that suits his style of defense, and because it could permit extra help defenders to come in against Boston's potent interior offense. Naturally, the Hornets defense will get a bit of a boost anyway, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scheduled to make his return from injury tonight, and not a moment too soon. I can't say for certain that Charlotte's recent defensive struggles begin and end with Kidd-Gilchrist's absence, but if a team loses their best defensive player, their defense does tend to get worse. And vice versa.
On the other side of the ball, the Hornets will probably need to find a way to score that doesn't involve getting tons of looks at the rim. Al Jefferson will surely get his open looks no matter who is on him, but Sullinger and Olynyk are a quality frontcourt that probably don't get the credit they deserve. As I said earlier, though, Boston is really, really bad at giving up shots from three, and that's likely going to be the area of emphasis. It's no secret that the Hornets' perimeter offense has been fairly abysmal this season, but with Gary Neal healthy, P.J. Hairston gaining confidence, and Marvin Williams seeing the green light more and more, this will start to change a bit. If there's a better opportunity for the Hornets to get some production out of the three-pointer, it's tonight.
The 7-12 Celtics currently sit a game out of the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference, because the East is a talent-deprived region of chaos and anarchy, but I genuinely don't think they're as bad as their record indicates. That said, the Hornets will get plenty of opportunities to win this game, and I think tonight could end up being a solid indicator of what they'll be able to do in the second quarter of this season.