The Boston Celtics are back in action, and the rest of the league had better take notice. The team has won six games in a row, and will look to make it seven tonight against a New Orleans squad that ranks last in the Western Conference.
However, do not count the Hornets out just yet. Despite their poor record, the team has actually won five of six, recently coming off of a four-game winning streak. This can be attributed to star scorer Eric Gordon returning from a knee injury and slowly starting to get his legs back.
New Orleans also has an advantage in that they are a very young team, and can force the aging Celtics to play a faster game as they see fit. This is unlikely, as head coach Monty Williams employs a slowed down defensive philosophy, but is still something to keep an eye on.
Unlike the Celtics, whose age is slowly starting to catch up with them, the Hornets are all about youth. The only player on the roster over the age of 30 is Roger Mason, Jr., so this is a chance for New Orleans to break out their youngsters and expose Boston's age.
Of course, that means overcoming a rowdy TD Garden crowd. Seeing as how Boston is 13-6 at home and New Orleans is 6-13 on the road, an upset victory is unlikely.
Still, the battle of youth vs. experience will be fun to watch.
Time: Wednesday, January 16, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, Fox Sports New Orleans
Records: New Orleans Hornets (12-26) vs. Boston Celtics (20-17)
Betting Line: New Orleans (+7.5), Boston (-7.5), via Bovada
Injuries: Chris Wilcox (thumb, out)
Key Storyline: Can New Orleans Continue Hot Streak in Beantown?
The team has to face another giant in the Celtics tonight. Despite a slow start in 2012-13, Boston is still a team that came within one win of the NBA Finals last season. Moreover, veteran leaders Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have won a championship together before, in 2008, and have helped keep Boston perennial playoff contenders.
But times have changed. Pierce is now 35 and Garnett is 36.
They still have plenty of bite to their bark, but their age is starting to show. The talent is still there, but younger players are able to beat them a bit more easily.
This means that Doc Rivers needs to have Boston in full defensive mode tonight. New Orleans likes to play some pesky D, ranking 13th in points allowed, and Boston simply needs to beat them at their own game, using its collective experience and blue-collar approach.
This could throw a serious monkey wrench into New Orleans' plan, which likely relies on taking advantage of the Celtics' age. It can easily be a close matchup, but it is just as easy for one team to turn it into a blowout.
Key Matchup: Greivis Vasquez vs. Rajon Rondo
Though the Celtics are the better team on paper, both they and the Hornets have some talented men running point. Rajon Rondo has been excellent, per usual, but New Orleans has a diamond in the rough in Venezuelan Greivis Vasquez.
The former Maryland Terp has been simply excellent this season. Not only has he averaged 14.3 points and shot 40 percent from three-point range, but he also ranks third in the league with 9.1 assists per game.
One of Vasquez's oft-overlooked assets is his size. He is exceptionally tall for a point guard at 6'6", which is ideal for creating mismatches. This will be a critical part of his approach tonight when he faces off against Rondo.
Like always, Rondo is proving to be one of the league's most underrated players. He is averaging a modest 13.2 points per game, but leads the league with 11.2 assists. Rondo has also averaged 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals, which are exceptional for someone who stands just 6'1", 186 pounds.
Vasquez needs to use his size to drive past Rondo tonight, and Rondo needs to employ every bit of his defensive effort in shutting him down. As good as Vasquez is, he does not have as much experience as Rondo, who has made the playoffs in each of his NBA seasons.
Simply put, Rondo just has to stop at nothing to stop Vasquez down. The Celtics may be hot, but so are the Hornets, and nothing slows a team down like taking its floor general out of commission.
Seeing as how Vasquez is a fairly weak defender, the odds are definitely in Rondo's favor. However, as the NBA has shown us throughout this season, anything can happen.
X-Factor: Anthony Davis
One of the stories not just of the Hornets' season, but of the NBA's in general, has been reigning No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. The Hornets selected him out of Kentucky, and he has generally performed well on the professional level.
Despite missing time with injuries, 19-year-old Davis has averaged 13 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. He has also shot 50 percent from the field, and his 6'10", 220-pound frame provides great size in the middle for a team committed to defense.
Unfortunately, the league seems to have figured Davis out. Over his past five games, he has averaged just 11 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. This could be due to Gordon returning to the lineup and Davis not getting as many touches, but that cannot be the case against Boston tonight.
Davis is likely going to be matched up against the slow-footed Brandon Bass, and must use both his low-post game and fine jump shot to be a spark for New Orleans. This means demanding the ball and not being afraid of taking a hard shot, not to mention driving the lane and drawing a foul.
Boston needs to ensure that, along with his teammate Vasquez, that Davis becomes a non-factor in tonight's game. Davis has shown great prowess on both sides of the floor, and is definitely in the running for Rookie of the Year.
If the Celtics are unable to stop him, extending the winning streak to seven games becomes highly unlikely.
In an astonishing fashion, the Hornets will defeat the Celtics tonight. Boston may be hot, but New Orleans has too many weapons at key positions, from Eric Gordon at shooting guard to the aforementioned Davis at power forward. Both players will have excellent performances en route to their team's sixth victory in seven games, and the Celtics crowd will be stunned.
That isn't to say that Boston will be destined to lose from the start. Paul Pierce will have a good scoring night and sink some clutch shots that keep the Celtics in the game and the score close, but New Orleans will just hit too many important shots in the fourth quarter.
Who will win?
Davis will have an excellent night on both sides of the floor, coming close to a double-double. Vasquez will fight past Rondo's defense and manage to accumulate enough assists to make a difference. Eric Gordon will score in double figures yet again, and this time not have an off-field goal percentage.
It will be an epic win for New Orleans and a tough loss for Boston. However, even in defeat, they will still manage to play a great overall game and continue to do so in future contests.
New Orleans Hornets 101, Boston Celtics 97
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Tuesday, January 15, 2013