Who: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics
When: 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: TD Garden
TV: Fox Sports Southeast, Comcast Sports NorthEast
The loss to the Washington Wizards yesterday is probably best forgotten, especially as the Hornets have to turn around just over 24 hours later and take on the Celtics in Boston at 7 p.m. tonight. It's a hard matchup, made tougher by being the second end of a road back-to-back, and against a Celtics squad that does not have any injuries now that Jae Crowder has recovered from his ailment.
Of course, the implications of this game alone are very significant to the Hornets. Winning would tie them with the Celtics for a share of fifth place, and inch them within half a game of the Miami Heat, who finish their season at the Detroit Pistons, then at Boston, which will not be an easy stretch of schedule for Miami. The Hornets could get ever closer to the fourth seed, which should be the goal, as the Atlanta Hawks are all but out of reach, and the difference between the fifth and sixth seed this year will be negligible. Home court advantage for a playoff series, on the other hand, is anything but minor. It would greatly benefit the Hornets to pick up a victory against the Celtics to increase the chances of securing that fourth seed.
That said, the Celtics will not be an easy team for the Hornets to beat. Charlotte has lost both games against Boston so far this season, and both came at home, where the Hornets typically excel. Moving this game on the road, where the Hornets have a sub-.500 record, is going to present another challenge for them to overcome. To be fair, both games against the Celtics were in December, and the Hornets have made many changes since then. Al Jefferson was not healthy for either game, and both were before the major trade deadline upgrade from P.J. Hairston to Courtney Lee. There's a possibility that neither of those make a difference, but I'd bet that the Hornets would have liked to have Jefferson and Lee in both of those losses.
The Celtics, on the other hand, remain a very tough team. They're led by a strong perimeter defense that forces opponents into taking bad shots and creates a lot of turnovers, and their offensive play is tough to stop, with a pedal-to-the-metal mentality that actually plays very conservatively despite their lightning-quick pace, which masks their relative inability to shoot the three.
Crowder and Isaiah Thomas are a high-quality duo for the Celtics, Jared Sullinger is more important than you would think, and Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are both offensive threats in very different ways. Meanwhile, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are tenacious defensive players, and Evan Turner, despite some of his limitations as a player, offers a lot of versatility that allows the Celtics to mix and match lineups to counter the opposing team's unit. They also have a head coach in Brad Stevens that has the right amount of basketball intelligence (the right amount, in this case, is a lot) to maximize this team's effectiveness on both ends of the court. The Celtics are a scary team, but one that the Hornets should theoretically match up well with.
The Hornets are essentially locked in to the sixth seed if they lose to the Celtics tonight, but a win would dramatically change their fortunes. Even if the fourth seed does not come to Charlotte, it would still be nice to see the Hornets pick up a road win before the playoffs start. As is, their 5-14 record against playoff teams in road games doesn't make me think happy thoughts going into the playoffs. With a win against the Celtics tonight, I'd start to be very optimistic about the Hornets' chances in the postseason.