12/27 Game Preview: Celtics at Hornets
The Boston Celtics will attempt to stop their worst slide of the season Wednesday when they make a one-day trip to Charlotte to take on the Hornets.
The Celtics (27-10) lost the top spot in the Eastern playoff standings to the Toronto Raptors by dropping three of the past four, including a 111-103 home defeat to the Washington Wizards on Christmas Day.
The problem? A defense that held 13 of 18 opponents under 100 points when the club opened 16-2 has permitted triple-digit scoring in 12 of 19 games since then.
The Celtics' early-season winning form was typified in a 90-87 home win over the Hornets in November. Boston won despite shooting just 35.7 percent, tightening the defensive screws on Charlotte in the fourth period.
The Celtics trailed 57-41 at halftime, then limited the Hornets to 30 second-half points, including just 11 in the fourth quarter.
"It hasn't been one of the best stretches for us, but we have a resilient group," star guard Kyrie Irving said Monday. "When we won 16 in a row, it was all great. And then now we have all this going on. It's part of the game. You can't change your approach."
An issue in the Monday loss was defensive rebounding. The Wizards retrieved seven of their misses in the fourth quarter alone and turned them into 10 critical points.
The Hornets had just seven offensive rebounds the entire game in the earlier meeting with the Celtics, but they employ one of the league's best offensive rebounders of all time in Dwight Howard.
Howard ranks fifth in the NBA in offensive rebounds this season at 3.5 per game. He has grabbed at least five on nine occasions, including in the Hornets' most recent game, a 111-106 home win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.
The eight-time All-Star ranks 13th in NBA history in total offensive rebounds with 3,509 and needs 53 more to catch Karl Malone for 12th place.
Howard added to his gaudy rebounding numbers with five on the offensive boards and 16 overall Saturday. The offensive rebounds helped him score 21 points despite a painful dislocated finger.
"Dwight was a monster inside," teammate Nicolas Batum said. "When you play like that, that's huge."
The Celtics catch a bit of a break in that Hornets backup big man Cody Zeller is out of action following meniscus surgery on his left knee. Zeller ranks 21st in the NBA in offensive rebounds at 2.4 per game despite not having made any starts this season.
The Hornets (12-21) find themselves in need of a momentum-gathering win on the eve of a four-game Western swing that opens Friday at Golden State.
Even with the victory over the Bucks, Charlotte hasn't taken advantage of a recent friendly schedule. The Hornets went just 4-8 despite playing nine of their past 12 games at home.
The Celtics have beaten the Hornets five straight times and nine of 10 dating back to February 2015. The last time Charlotte triumphed over Boston at home was in December 2014.