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Short handed Celtics visit Charlotte Hornets

Celtics and Hornets meet for the second of 3 meetings this season.

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics are back on the road to visit the Hornets for the second of 3 regular season games. They have already met twice in the preseason with the Celtics winning both games. The Celtics also won the first meeting in November as the Celtics came back from 18 down to win 90-87. The Celtics swept the series last season 4-0. These two teams will meet once more in Boston on February 28.

In the first meeting between these two teams, the Celtics were without Al Horford who was out with a concussion. Also, Kyrie Irving played just 1 minute in the game, leaving after taking an elbow to the face from teammate Aron Baynes. Jayson Tatum and Shane Larkin led the Celtics with 16 points each and Terry Rozier added 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists.

The Celtics are 5-5 in their last 10 games and are 13-5 on the road. The Hornets are 3-7 in their last 10 games and are 10-9 at home. The Celtics are coming off a loss to the Wizards on Christmas day while the Hornets are coming off a win over the Bucks on Saturday. Once again, the Celtics catch a rested Hornets team with 3 days rest.

The Celtics briefly slipped to second in the standings as the Raptors won 6 in a row while the Celtics have been up and down. Thanks to a loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday, the Celtics are back on top, 1.5 games ahead of both the Raptors and the Cavaliers, who, along with the Celtics, lost on Christmas day.

The Hornets will be without Cody Zeller who is out with a knee injury. Marvin Williams left Saturday's game vs the Bucks with a finger injury and is day to day. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist missed Tuesday's practice with an illness and is a game time decision for this game. He went through shoot around and Charlotte coaches have said that they expect him to be in the starting lineup.

After missing 8 games, Marcus Morris played 15 minutes against the Wizards on Christmas day. He is once again expected to miss this game as the Celtics look to ease him back into the rotation. Semi Ojeleye missed Monday's game and is listed as out for this game after going through shoot around with less pain than expected but still isn't able to move the way he needs to. Jaylen Brown limped off the court at the end of Monday's game after reportedly bumping knees with Markieff Morris and will miss this game. With possible strained ligaments in his knee, he may be out for more than this game as well.

Jabari Bird has been called up from the Red Claws and is with the team for this game. I expect Marcus Smart to start in Brown's place if he can't play. This is the first of yet another back to back set with the Houston Rockets coming up on Thursday night. The Celtics' depth and resiliency will definitely be tested.

PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Marcus Smart
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Al Horford
C: Aron Baynes

Celtics Reserves
Abdel Nader
Daniel Theis
Guerschon Yabusele
Terry Rozier
Jabari Bird
Shane Larkin

Injuries
Gordon Hayward (ankle) out
Marcus Morris (knee) out
Jaylen Brown (Achilles) out
Semi Ojeleye (back) out

Two Way Players
Kadeem Allen

Coach
Brad Stevens

PG: Kemba Walker
SG: Nicolas Batum
SF: Michael Kidd Gilchrist
PF: Marvin Williams
C: Dwight Howard

Probable Reserves
Dwayne Bacon
Michael Carter Williams
Frank Kaminsky
Malik Monk
Johnny O'Bryant
Treveon Graham
Julyan Stone

Injuries
Cody Zeller (knee) out
Michael Kidd Gilchrist (illness) game time decision
Marvin Williams (finger) day to day

Two Way Players
Mangok Mathiang
Marcus Paige

Head Coach
Steve Clifford

Key Matchups

Kyrie Irving vs Kemba Walker
Walker is averaging 21.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Kyrie is going to need to play defense to slow Walker down because he is capable of taking over a game. Walker had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the first game. Kyrie will also need to make him work on the defensive end so as to wear him out a bit.

Aron Baynes vs Dwight Howard
This is a matchup of two physical old school centers. Neither is a 3 point shooter and both are physical in playing around the basket. Howard is averaging 15.4 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. The Celtics will need Baynes in his All of Australia mode to keep Howard out of the paint and away from the basket, especially on rebounds.

Honorable Mention
Daniel Theis vs Frank Kaminsky
This is a battle of two players off the bench who can influence a game. Kaminsky always seems to play very well vs the Celtics. He came off the bench for 14 points in the first game between these two teams and he should see more opportunity in this one with Zeller out. He averages 10.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists and hopefully Theis can keep him in check in this one.

Keys to the Game
Defense Defense Defense!! Defense is the key to winning every game, but particularly this one. The Hornets average 104.6 points per game while the Celtics average 103.5 points per game. The Hornets average 3.5 more rebounds per game and fewer turnovers. The biggest difference is defense. The Celtics have let their defense slip since their win streak. They have slipped to second with a defensive rating of 101.1. Golden State is now #1. The Celtics must continue to make defense a priority and play tough individual and team defense if they want to win this one.

Next Man Up - If Brown, Ojeleye and and Morris are all out, each Celtic needs to step up his game to the next level. It has been this way pretty much all season with one player getting injuried after another. In the last game vs the Hornets when Kyrie got hurt, Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin both stepped up. Who will step up in this one?

Rebound - The Celtics had been rebounding very well this season but like the defense, in recent games they have really slacked off in this area. Poor rebounding was one of the reasons they lost to the Wizards. They are averaging 43.9 rebounds per game to 46.5 rebounds per game for the Hornets, which is second in the league. The Celtics need to put in extra effort to crash the boards and beat the Hornets to the rebounds.

Be Aggressive - One of the strengths of the Celtics has been their aggressiveness on the court. They need to be aggressive in going after rebounds, on defense, in attacking the basket and in going after loose balls. The more aggressive team will also usually get more calls from the officials. The Celtics let the Wizards be more aggressive in their last game and they need to be sure that they don't let the Hornets do the same.

Play Hard 48 Minutes - The Celtics have gotten into the habit of either starting off slow and needing to catch up or getting off to a big lead and then letting up and allowing the opponent to get back into the game with a chance to win and a lot of confidence. The Celtics have had 15 games where they fell behind by 11 or more. They are 7-8 in those games. They need to get off to a strong start and play hard right up until the final buzzer.

X-Factors
Depth and Fatigue - The Celtics' schedule has been brutal with no breaks and no time for practice. It's obvious that the players are feeling it with many shots coming up short and effort on defense and rebounding. Each of the Celtics will need to work harder on both ends of the court as they try to win games like this that they should win.

Don't Underestimate - The Celtics can't underestimate the Hornets because of the sub-.500 record. They are tough and they seem to do everything well except defend. It's certain that the Hornets will come in motivated to avenge their earlier loss to the Celtics and so, if the Celtics let up at all, they are likely to get beat.