Game Preview: Hornets at Celtics

BOSTON – It’s beginning to feel a lot like… last season.

For the second season in a row, the Boston Celtics (24-6) cruised out of the gates to a 23-5 start that put them at the front of the NBA’s championship conversation. However, injuries have also taken their toll on the C’s around New Year’s Eve for the second season in a row and the list just continues to grow.

Kevin Garnett became the latest casualty when he exited Wednesday night’s loss to the Pistons with a strained muscle near his right calf. With his status uncertain, Boston must move on to the next game at hand, which is a New Year’s Eve showdown at 3 p.m. against the New Orleans Hornets in the TD Garden.

While Garnett’s injury seems to have been more frightening than serious, it left players and coaches wondering when the team would be able to avoid the pesky injury bug that has nagged them for a full year now.

"Usually without Kevin, we have everyone else," Doc Rivers said after Wednesday’s defeat in Detroit. "As Paul (Pierce) said, 'How many more can we take?' If Kevin misses games, we're without Kevin, Rondo, Perk, Delonte. The list is getting really long. I don't think anyone will feel bad for us."

And that includes the Hornets, who wouldn’t mind playing a nicked up Celtics squad if it means an opportunity to right their own sinking ship.

New Orleans began the season red-hot by winning its first eight games and seemingly turning the Chris Paul trade saga into a forgotten matter. However, their magic disappeared in an instant and the team won only 10 of its next 24 outings.

When these teams meet under normal circumstances, it’s typical that two matchups will garner all of the attention. Each team possesses one of the league’s top point guards and power forwards, but those matchups are unlikely, at best, to take place during today’s game.

Boston may receive a boost from Rajon Rondo, who has missed the last six games with a sprained left ankle. Friday’s game has been mentioned as a target date for Rondo’s return for nearly a week now, but Rivers has also noted that the team will not bring him back until he’s 100 percent healthy.

“I don’t know if you’ll see him [Friday] or not, but he’s getting close,” Rivers told WEEI on Thursday. “So far, each time he’s worked out there’s been some swelling and that’s a concern. We’re going to take it slow.”

If Rondo does return, it will secure the premier matchup between he and Paul. Rondo’s 13.8 APG rank first in the league, while Paul’s 9.8 a night are good for third on the list. However, when it comes to steals, the Hornets point guard gets the nod. Paul is first in the league with 2.78 steals a night, compared to Rondo’s third-best average of 2.35.

Boston would be delighted to see those two face off, because that would mean their offensive engine would be back on the court. At the other intriguing position, both teams have come to the realization that New Orleans will be the only team with its All-Star power forward taking the court.

Danny Ainge announced on WEEI Thursday afternoon that the Celtics will be forced to play without Garnett in the short term, and possibly for up to two weeks.

“It’s one of those injuries that, you know, he may be out for a couple of weeks, at the most, I would say,” Ainge remarked. “That’s my guess. You know it’s always a guess when you’re trying to see when guys come back, but I’ll just say two weeks, and I think that’s on a very conservative side.”

With KG out of the lineup, Glen Davis will step in and try to match David West. West, who leads the Hornets with 18.9 PPG to go along with 6.9 RPG, is having another phenomenal year and is one of the top shooting big men in the league. He is shooting 52.7 percent from the floor, and that’s saying something considering many of his shots are from 15 feet and out. Davis also likes to take similar shots, so we might not see too much action around the basket between those two.

The injuries have mounted for Boston, but things could be worse. It looks like they are sidestepping the major injuries, and the fact is that these guys will be back sooner rather than later is a huge plus. Boston will likely have to play this game without two of its top four players, but it has shown throughout the season that it is capable of overcoming such circumstances. We’ll see if the C’s can prove that one more time in their last opportunity of 2010.

Clutch Play by Allen and Pierce

You can take this statement to the bank: With so many injuries piled up, the Celtics don’t just want good or great performances from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce – they absolutely need them.

Simply put, the Celtics cannot win basketball games while Garnett, Rondo and the rest of the walking wounded are watching from the sideline unless Boston’s remaining stars play at or above their accustomed levels.

Pierce has been the Celtics’ best player since Rondo went down, but he must cut his turnovers down this afternoon. He has coughed the ball up five times in two of the Celtics’ last three games.

Allen has been relatively quiet over the team’s last three games and has failed to score more than 17 points in any of those contests. That cannot happen this afternoon. Boston needs him to shoot well, or else the Hornets’ stingy defense – which gives up the fourth-lowest PPG average in the league at 92.8 – will be able to shrink on the C’s offense.

Boston would love to see a combined 45 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists from its two healthy members of the Big Three. Those numbers should be able to put the team in position to win.

Big Baby’s Shooting

The man who refers to himself as the Ticket Stub during times like these, Davis, will be called upon to fill big minutes during KG’s missed time. Davis has performed well in the past when stepping in for Garnett, particularly during the 2009 playoffs, but it’s been quite a while since he had a taste of the starting rotation.

It’s nearly a given that Davis will bring his natural energy and hustle to the table in every game, but what hasn’t been as consistent of late is his shooting. He has shot only 36.0 percent from the floor over his last four games. With such a short bench, particularly in the frontcourt, he’ll need to drastically increase that percentage today while avoiding foul trouble.

Road Woes

New Orleans’ biggest problem this season is its inability to win basketball games on the road. It enters today’s game with a stellar 13-4 record at home, but it has won only five of its 15 games on the road.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have been absolutely dominant in the Garden and have taken care of business against the teams it should beat. Rivers’ club has racked up a 13-1 record at home and is the only team in the league that hasn’t lost more than once in its own arena.

With those trends, which certainly don’t favor the Hornets, in mind, Boston should have a great opportunity to add to its home win total in this game despite the absences of numerous key players.