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Game preview: Charlotte Hornets at Washington Wizards

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The Hornets travel up to the nation's capital to face the Wizards in this season's first game between these division rivals.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off that electrifying win against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, the Charlotte Hornets are hoping to keep their momentum going in their first game all season against the Washington Wizards. It seems like early February is awfully late to start a series against a division rival, but here the Hornets are, having not faced the Wizards since April 9, 2014.

Tonight's game will mark the beginning of one of the most important season series between these two franchises, in a rare year when both will look to be making the playoffs. The Wizards, after suffering an overtime loss to Toronto despite coming back from a 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter, are third in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Raptors, and a game and a half in front of the Chicago Bulls. The Hornets, meanwhile, are only half a game behind the Miami Heat, but still in eighth in the conference, thanks to some timely losses by both the Brooklyn Nets and the Detroit Pistons.

The Wizards have made it as far as they have due to great shooting, particularly from the outside (they rank 4th in the league in three-point percentage), and solid interior defense, getting some terrific play out of veterans Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat. Taken as a whole, the Wizards' offense and defense aren't really all that impressive, ranking 15th in offensive efficiency and 11th in the defensive category, but they've been very productive at maximizing the value of what they are good at. Their veterans ensure that there is a steady presence on the court at all times, particularly on the inside, but forces them to play at a pace roughly as slow as the Hornets; despite the presence of young stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, this Wizards team is not young in any way.

However, what the Wizards are is healthy. As Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Jannero Pargo will probably all miss tonight's contest for the Hornets, Washington's injury report currently lists zero players. Nine Washington players have already appeared in 40 contests this season (compared to five such players for the Hornets), and Beal will play in his 40th tonight. That's one of the biggest reasons that the Wizards have been as successful as they've been this year, and with no current injuries to be concerned about, they'll be as potent as ever as they host Charlotte tonight.

So how could the Hornets beat the Wizards? There's a few different things that could be exploited tonight. The Hornets' offense is much better on the inside than around the perimeter, which will end up forcing more shots from outside than the Wizards might be used to; if their shooters go cold (which isn't an unrealistic scenario, as they were on a major cold streak from outside until the game against Toronto), it could force them to struggle during long stretches. The Wizards also suffer in free throw disparity, giving up a lot of fouls, and drawing very few-- a skill that won't match up well against the Hornets' propensity to make good use of physical contact on both ends of the court (a few wild, out-of-control drives per game from Kemba or Lance Stephenson notwithstanding). Furthermore, the Wizards are a team that gives up the ball way more often than you would expect. Wall, talented and focused as he is, has a few mental lapses per game, and Andre Miller's passing accuracy has faded with age. Players such as Otto Porter and Paul Pierce do take care of the ball, but it's a team-wide problem, as Washington averages fifteen giveaways per game.

It's a big game for both teams, so expect both to come out running straight out of the gate. I'm curious to see how the Hornets defense reacts to the strong perimeter play of the Wizards offense, so that's what I'll be watching most closely tonight. That, and to see whether Cody Zeller can followup his terrific game against the Denver Nuggets with another strong performance.