Celtics-Hornets preview: Heightened level of pressure for C's

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Unlike the previous two seasons, the Boston Celtics hit the home stretch this month with their playoff fate already decided.
 
They’re not just going to the postseason, but they will open at home against an opponent yet to be determined.
 
So as we try and pick and prod away at why this 50-win team has struggled so mightily of late, it’s hard to imagine that their already established playoff position hasn’t been a contributing factor to them not playing with the same kind of effort we have seen for most of this season.
 
In their last two games, the one constant in both was the fact that they faced a team that played with a greater urgency to succeed, a need-to-be-quenched thirst for victory that proved to be an acquired taste the Celtics lacked.
 
And tonight’s game against the Charlotte Hornets will be yet another challenging matchup for the Celtics (50-29) who face a team that comes in as desperate as you can be this time of year.
 
While the Hornets (36-43) are mathematically still in the playoff picture, the window for them to get in is about as close to being slammed shut as you can imagine.
 
An Indiana win at Orlando tonight would eliminate the Hornets from the playoffs.
 
And while Boston locked up a spot in the postseason a while back, their back-to-back losses has tightened things up a bit near the top of the East.
 
Cleveland’s 114-100 loss to Atlanta on Friday night still leaves the Celtics 1.0 game behind the Cavs for the best record in the East with three games remaining.
 
But just as important for the Celtics is the team that’s nipping at their heels – Toronto.
 
The Raptors (49-31) have won 10 of their last 12 games which includes a 96-94 win over Miami Friday night.
 
For Boston, the magic number is 2 for them to secure an Atlantic Division title over Toronto and even more important, lock up the No. 2 seed in the East.
 
That’s why tonight’s game is indeed a different animal of sorts from their previous two games against Cleveland and Atlanta, respectively.
 
When they faced Cleveland, the Cavs were seen by many as a team that was vulnerable to getting knocked off their perch atop the East. It was clear from the start that the Cavs were determined to not just win, but send a message to both the Celtics and any other team that they might face down the road that their demise was greatly exaggerated.
 
And in Thursday’s loss at Atlanta, the Hawks were the hungrier team because unlike the Celtics, their playoff position was still undecided.
 
Tonight is the first time in a while that the Celtics come into a game with a heightened level of pressure to do more than just play good basketball, but play well enough to win.
 
The Cavs and the top seed in the Eastern Conference remain within reach.
 
A victory tonight over Charlotte would give Boston two chances at victory, both at home, of securing the No. 2 seed or possibly moving up to the top spot depending on what the Cavs do with the remainder of their schedule.
 
And it’ll take the Celtics playing close to what we saw in the second half of the Atlanta loss to finish the regular season strong.
 
In the second half of Thursday's game, Boston did a number of things well but more than anything else, they played with great effort and a sense of urgency – things we haven’t seen enough of from this crew lately.
 
“We haven’t played with effort the past week,” Boston’s Jae Crowder said following Thursday night’s loss at Atlanta. “We’ve been getting away with some wins because of our talent. We have to get our effort back. It ain’t about shot-making. Guys talk about shot-making, this and that. Our effort is something we have total control over. And we haven’t brought that every night. We have to get back to that.”

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