Game Preview: Celtics at Hornets

BOSTON – The 2011-12 NBA season may only be in its fourth day, but no one expected the following to be a fact at this point: The New Orleans Hornets (1-0) are at the top of their division, and the Boston Celtics (0-2) are at the bottom of theirs.

Boston has gone 0-for-2 against two of the top teams in the East, New York and Miami, while the Hornets managed to knock off the Phoenix Suns 85-84 on Monday night. The C’s will look to eliminate that goose egg in their win column at 8 p.m. tonight in New Orleans.

Tonight’s contest will be the home opener for the Hornets, meaning the New Orleans faithful will get their first in-person look at their new team. The Hornets shipped Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers exactly two weeks ago in a trade that overhauled their roster. In return for the four-time All-Star, New Orleans received Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round pick (via Minnesota).

Gordon is by far the cream of the crop in New Orleans now that Paul is gone. He had been viewed as a future cornerstone of the Clippers’ franchise, alongside Blake Griffin, but now will hold that title for the Hornets. He opened his career in New Orleans with 20 points, four rebounds and three assists to help lead his team to victory on Monday.

The rest of the package New Orleans received is coming off of the bench. Kaman, who has started for the majority of his eight-plus seasons, is now coming off of the bench to back up Emeka Okafor. He pitched in 10 points and five rebounds off of the bench Monday night. Aminu played limited minutes, much the same as his rookie campaign in Los Angeles, and did not score a point.

With these new players on board, one thing the Hornets are is young. Not a single player on the team has played more than eight full seasons in the league, and only four players on the roster have more than four years of experience. That youth could be an issue for the Celtics, who will be playing in the second night of a back-to-back tonight.

We all know how difficult back-to-backs were for this Celtics team a year ago. Yes, the team has gotten younger and more athletic, but it’s still a challenge to take on a young team just one night after fighting with the Miami Heat down to the final minute.

That fight resulted in a loss, which means that tonight Boston will be looking to avoid becoming the first team in the NBA to have an 0-3 record.

Most of the Celtics’ key players were on the court for big minutes Tuesday night in Miami. Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen each played more than 40 minutes, while Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass each logged at least 32. Those are Boston’s top four players at the moment, and they will be relied upon heavily tonight.

Allen was a sharpshooter last night and dropped in 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. Rondo also continued his fantastic start to the season, which has him averaging 26.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 12.5 APG through two contests. The trio of Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Jarrett Jack will be faced with the task of defending Allen and Rondo tonight.

Boston has shown that it can compete with the top teams in the league through its first two games of the season, but it has nothing to show for that in the win column. The hope is that this will change tonight against an opponent that is surprisingly sitting atop the Southwest division heading into this matchup.

Managing the Minutes

The Celtics are coming off of a tough loss last night in Miami that forced their starters to play big minutes. That’s never a good thing heading into the second night of a back-to-back, particularly against a young and athletic opponent like the Hornets.

Doc Rivers will be faced with the challenge of limiting his top players’ minutes while also shooting for a win. That will be increasingly difficult seeing as the Celtics probably won’t have Paul Pierce and Mickael Pietrus, and the status of Chris Wilcox, who bruised his left shoulder last night, is still unknown.

If Rivers doesn’t have any of those players at his disposal, it’s a possibility that the team’s rookies, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, and their top training camp invitee, Greg Stiemsma, could see minutes.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Playing against two of the top teams in the league has meant that Boston’s players have been playing stressful minutes on the court. Defending guys like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire is no easy task.

The good news is that tonight, the Celtics will be facing a lot of good players, but no superstars. Gordon is by far the best player on New Orleans’ roster, but he is only a 6-foot-3 guard who is perimeter-oriented.

It won’t be an easy task to contain Gordon on the perimeter, but it will certainly be less taxing than attempting to slow down the powerhouse offenses of New York and Miami. Defending teams like New York and Miami is incredibly difficult from a physical and mental standpoint. Tonight, the C’s should get at least a little bit of a breather in those two areas.

Attack the Boards

Boston’s defense has given up 110.5 PPG through two games, which means there haven’t been a ton of rebounds for them to grab in those contests. This is the main reason why the Celtics average just 34.5 RPG thus far this season.

It’s unlikely that the Hornets, a team not made up of superstar scorers, will drop 110-plus points on the Celtics tonight, but even if they do Boston will need to do everything it can to protect the glass. New Orleans is a very balanced rebounding team, as five separate players grabbed at least five boards in its first contest of the season. The Hornets grabbed 47 rebounds as a team in that game.

Brandon Bass is the leading rebounder for Boston with 8.0 RPG off of the bench. Just behind him are Kevin Garnett and Rondo, who both average 6.5 boards a night. All three of those players will need to crash the boards with consistency tonight, and they’ll need plenty of help from their teammates as well.