Game Preview: Celtics at Hornets

BOSTON – The first game of Boston’s three-game road trip didn’t go as planned, so now the Celtics will be faced with the difficult task of returning to the win column in the second night of a back-to-back.

The Celtics (48-19) suffered one of their worst losses of the season last night, a 93-77 defeat to the Rockets, and immediately departed Houston to head to New Orleans for tonight’s 8 p.m. matchup with the Hornets (40-30).

This road trip began with the hope of accomplishing two separate goals. First, Boston had an opportunity to avenge two bad home losses to inferior opponent, and secondly, the C’s could dispel the notion that they cannot physically compete and win in the second night of a back-to-back.

Now that Friday night’s loss is in the books, Boston must move on to the Hornets and attempt to salvage as much of those two goals as possible. A win tonight would actually take care of the majority of those goals, and it would turn the team’s morale back in the right direction. Beating the Hornets in New Orleans would avenge one of those tough home losses and it would give the C's a victory in the second night of a back-t0-back, something they haven't experienced in quite some time.

To grab a win against New Orleans tonight, though, there is no doubt that the Celtics will need to play at a much higher level than they did on Friday night in Houston. Boston began last night’s game with energy and conviction, but those two characteristics quickly disappeared in the second quarter once the deficit began to widen.

Boston’s offense couldn’t catch a break, as the team shot just 42.3 percent from the floor and made only one 3-pointer. The starters accounted for the majority of those poor numbers, as none of them scored more than 11 points in the game and three of them scored eight or less points. All in all, the starting group totaled a measly 38 points on 14-of-40 shooting.

Doc Rivers believes that the offensive struggles were a result of the team’s inability to execute at the other end of the floor, where the Rockets scored 62 points in the first half.

“We couldn’t make shots. We missed point blank shots,” Rivers said after the loss. “I believe our bad offense led to bad defense.”

A positive that can already be pulled from the team’s flight to New Orelans is that good defense was certainly existent the last time the Celtics played the Hornets. That game was played on New Year’s Eve, when New Orleans came into the TD Garden and burned the Celtics in a defensive battle, 83-81.

Three Hornets combined to score most of their teams’ points that day, as Chris Paul (20 points), David West (19 points) and Emeka Okafor (18 points) all had big games. Boston, meanwhile, got balanced scoring from its offensive attack but no one had a huge game. Ray Allen’s 18 points accounted for the only Celtic player to tally more than 12 in the game.

Both teams shot below 45 percent in that first meeting and only one player, Paul, was able to notch more than four assists in the contest. He finished with 11 on the day to give him a double-double.

If you’re struggling to figure out how Paul was able to knife up Rajon Rondo all afternoon during that contest, it’s because he didn’t. Both Rondo and Kevin Garnett didn’t play in that game, so the Hornets squeaked out a road win against Boston’s B-team.

Both of those players should be in the lineup tonight, and they will have to step up their respective games to help the Celtics pull out an important win on the road. Rondo has been struggling of late, but he typically gets himself revved up for games against premier point guards. Paul certainly fits into that category, so the hope is that Rondo will return to his All-Star caliber play and engineer a big win for the C’s on the road.

Turn on the Offense

Although Rivers believes that poor defense led to bad offense, it’s hard to think that the opposite may have taken place last night in Houston. When the Celtics don’t score, it allows the other team to get out in transition and often takes away Boston’s vaunted half-court defense.

The Celtics have experienced that problem quite a bit of late, because their offensive prowess has not been on display for quite some time. Since scoring at least 99 points in five of the team’s first six games after Jeff Green and Krstic joined the roster, Boston’s offense has gone to sleep. It has not scored more than 92 points in any of its last five games, and its average scoring output during that span is an anemic 84.2 PPG.

Defense is the hallmark of this team, but it won’t succeed unless it can score points. The Celtics have plenty of firepower to make that happen by putting the ball in the basket. The keys to returning to an efficient offense are getting Rondo back on track and allowing movement and execution to result in open looks for shooters.

Frontcourt Rebounding

Yes, the Celtics won the rebounding battle against the Hornets in the teams’ first meeting by a count of 40-35, but the Celtics didn’t get a great rebounding effort from anyone on their frontline. Okafor dominated the glass with 13 rebounds of his own, and that nearly doubled the highest total of any Celtic.

Pierce was the leading rebounder in that contest for Boston with his seven boards. Three other Celtics grabbed six rebounds, but two of them were the starting point guard at the time (Nate Robinson) and the shooting guard (Allen). Glen Davis and Shaquille O’Neal, Boston’s starting frontcourt for the game, combined to grab only five rebounds.

That cannot be the case again tonight, or the Celtics will suffer their second consecutive loss. Boston needs Garnett and Nenad Krstic to attack the glass tonight and box out consistently. We all know those two have it in them, and we hope those talents can resurface after the duo combined for only eight boards last night against the Rockets.

Fresh Legs

Boston went into last night’s game hoping for a blowout so that Rivers could rest his starters for tonight’s game. The blowout occurred, just not in the manner the Celtics would have liked.

“There was only one thing we accomplished in the game,” Rivers said before departing for New Orleans, “and that is that we kept our starters’ minutes low.”

They certainly did, because none of Boston’s starters played more than 28 minutes in the game. Those minutes are typical for a game in which Gino comes out to dance for the C’s, but that wasn’t the case this time around.

Still, though, that blowout loss could be a blessing in disguise for tonight’s game. The Hornets haven’t played since their 100-95 win over the Suns on Wednesday night and they’ll be wrapping up a five-game homestand tonight. They will undoubtedly have fresh legs for this game, and for that reason, the C’s can pull at least one positive from last night’s game – that their starters should be fresh, too.