The Charlotte Hornets (28-33) are suddenly the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. The Hornets just won their fifth straight game with a big 118-103 home win over the Chicago Bulls last night. Kemba Walker had another huge game against the Bulls as he finished with 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting and 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Dwight Howard was also dominant in the paint en route to 24 points (10-12 FG) and five blocks.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Lamb added 15 points off the bench as he played extended minutes after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist left with a hamstring strain. Treveon Graham also had a season-high 28 minutes and could be in line to start in place of MKG.
Like the Hornets, the Boston Celtics (43-19) have also benefited from the All-Star break. After losing their last three games prior to the break, the Celtics have won their first three games back. Granted, they have had a relatively easy stretch of opponents with the Pistons, Knicks, and Grizzlies, but they’ve been impressive in those wins.
Kyrie Irving, in particular, has been playing some strong all-around basketball since the break. He’s averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 53 percent shooting in his last three games. Al Horford and Jayson Tatum combined for just ten points on 3-of-15 shooting last time out against the Grizzlies, but Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis stepped up by totaling 25 points and 15 boards off the bench.
Three keys to the game
Hornets' supporting cast – Kemba Walker has scored 20 points in each of his first two meetings against the Celtics. But the problem is that his teammates have been more or less shut down by Boston. No Hornets player has been able to score over 14 points in either game against the Celtics this season. That will definitely have to change in order for the Hornets to pick up the big road win.
Boston bench – The Celtics bench has been a huge reason for their success post-ASG. That unit has already topped 50 points twice in three games. Terry Rozier has continued to be a consistent source of offense, while Marcus Smart has returned to provide his stellar defense and energy. Morris and Theis have chipped in with a couple of strong performances. That deep bench should once again be a significant factor in the outcome of this contest.
Defense – The Celtics’ league-leading defense has put the clamps on Charlotte, holding the Hornets to sub-40 percent shooting in their first two meetings. However, the Hornets have tightened the screws on that end of the floor recently. The Celtics’ offense hasn’t exactly been outstanding this season, and some added resistance could see the Hornets limit Boston’s effectiveness this time around.
Matchup to watch
Kemba Walker vs Kyrie Irving – All eyes will be on the All-Star showdown between Walker and Irving. Neither has had a particularly eye-catching game in their two matchups this season, but they have both come out of the gates hot after the break and will be highly motivated to keep their respective win streaks intact.
Hornets projected starting lineup
PG – Kemba Walker | SG – Nicolas Batum | SF – Treveon Graham | PF – Marvin Williams | C – Dwight Howard
Celtics projected starting lineup
PG – Kyrie Irving | SG – Jaylen Brown | SF – Jayson Tatum | PF – Al Horford | C – Aron Baynes
Kemba Walker may be the Hornet with the best shot at putting up a big night in fantasy, but this spot against the Celtics is hardly ideal. Aside from the fact that Boston has the best defense in the league, Walker will also be on the second night of a back-to-back, which generally hasn’t resulted in big fantasy nights for him.
As for the Celtics, Irving is a much safer bet given how well he’s been playing at the moment. But apart from him, Jayson Tatum could also be a sneaky good pickup. He’s averaging 17 points on 50 percent shooting in two meetings against the Hornets this season, and likely won’t have the hassle of having MKG’s defense on him all night.
The Hornets should be brimming with confidence following their string of impressive wins. Of their five straight wins, four have been by 15 or more points. Obviously, the Celtics will be a much tougher opponent than the ones they've faced recently. But the Hornets should be able to hang with Boston and cover the 7.5-point spread.
The Hornets give the Celtics all they can handle, but Boston have just about enough to edge out Charlotte, 105-99.
This game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Boston and Fox Sports Southeast – Charlotte. Tip-off is at 7:30 pm Eastern.