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Hornets look to push record to 3-0 against Celtics

The Hornets won their first two games of the season and look to extend that streak to three games against the Celtics tonight. Here’s what you need to know.

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets play their home opener against the Boston Celtics tonight — less than 24 hours after defeating the Miami Heat in Florida. The Hornets’ first two games were both wins on the road were won by an average margin of 8.5 points. The Hornets haven’t won the first two games of the regular season since 2008.

The Celtics are 1-1 on the season after losing to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday. They played well in that game, having been down 91-85 before a trio of Isaiah Thomas buckets brought the lead down to three with three minutes left in the game. Thomas finished with 25 points, four assists, three rebounds, and two steals in 35 minutes but the Celtics ultimately lost by six points.

After the game, Celtics forward Jae Crowder told reporters:

“I’m not in a good mood right now,” he said. “I felt like we got punked all night. We lost the game in a fashion that we didn’t want to lose it.”

I hear you, Jae. No one expected Dwyane Wade to shoot 4-of-6 from behind the arc. It seems that’s the new norm, though.

The Celtics are widely regarded as a top team in the Eastern Conference, with most analysts and pundits predicting the team will finish anywhere from second to fifth come April.

They were able to rally back from a seven-point deficit to a 15-point victory when the they played the Hornets in preseason. It was one of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s worst performances in the preseason.

That didn’t matter, though. Head coach Steve Clifford had no desire to actually win that game, instead opting to experiment with lineups and sets before to gauge his team’s strengths and weaknesses before the regular season.

Tonight’s contest is the real deal, however. The Hornets are playing to win.

The Celtics are a much-improved team looking to make a big splash in the playoffs. They picked up Al Horford and Gerald Green in free agency, adding much-needed veteran leadership to a young team. They also lucked into getting the third pick in this year’s NBA Draft and selected Jaylen Brown.

They’re definitely a team on the rise.

The Celtics’ defense is stingy and polished, their offense free-flowing and diversified. In many ways, they’re a lot like the Hornets.

Luckily, the Hornets are playing a lite version of the Celtics tonight. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk are not available, which helps since Roy Hibbert is out for the Hornets. He suffered a knee injury of some sort against the Heat last night and is day-to-day, as far as we know. Frank Kaminsky‘s status is also up in the air.

However, it’s probably for the best that Cody Zeller sees the majority of the minutes at center tonight. He matches up far better with Horford than Hibbert, Kaminsky, or Spencer Hawes do. This also means we’re likely going to see more Kidd-Gilchrist at power forward. Mixed bag, that. But it’s an experiment worth conducting.

The most interesting matchup tonight is undoubtedly at point guard. Kemba’s usually put in the same tier as Thomas when national writers rank the league’s point guards, and for good reason. Both are small, dynamic scoring guards with wicked handles leading their respective teams in points per game this season.

To win tonight, the Hornets will need to contain the Celtics’ 3-point shooting. Thomas, Horford, Green, Crowder, and Avery Bradley are excellent shooters from behind the arc and have been uncharacteristically cool so far this season. Without open 3-pointers, the Celtics’ offense should devolve into broken plays consisting of Thomas pick-and-rolls and Horford post-ups. Kemba and Zeller should be able to handle that.

All in all, the Hornets should be able to pull out a win tonight. This is undoubtedly their most difficult matchup of the season so far and their margin for error is small. The Hornets have the talent to pull this off. But will they have the energy to use that talent?

Tip off is at 7 p.m.