BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics have come out of the prolonged All-Star break with a burst, winning three games in four nights.
Wednesday night, the Charlotte Hornets hit TD Garden -- and bring with them a season-high five-game winning streak and some hope of sneaking into the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
They almost had trouble bringing with them a full squad.
In Tuesday night's 118-103 home victory over the Chicago Bulls, the Hornets (28-33) lost three players to injury during the game.
But Howard returned, wound up playing 29 minutes, scoring 24 points (10 of 12 from the floor and 4 of 5 from the foul line), blocking five shots and grabbing six rebounds. He said after the game it was a rib injury.
Kemba Walker scored 31 points and dished out five assists Tuesday -- his 11th 30-point game of the season. He has averaged 24.6 points during the winning streak, going 21 of 40 from 3-point range. He has six straight games of 50 percent or better from behind the arc.
And his team, which should be missing Kidd-Gilchrist Wednesday, is winning.
"I think we've just been together as a whole," Jeremy Lamb said on Hornets television after Tuesday's victory. "Everybody's been into it. The bench has been into it. Everybody's been playing great -- even when we're not shooting the ball well we're staying with it; through other teams' runs and that's what you need to win."
The Celtics, who played poorly before the All-Star break, trail the Toronto Raptors by a half-game for the Eastern Conference lead.
The three-game winning streak has coincided with the return of defensive sparkplug Marcus Smart, back from the hand laceration he suffered smacking a hotel room picture frame in Los Angeles.
Smart comes off the bench and provides instant defense and spark, and his perimeter defense will be important against a Charlotte team that has been on fire from 3-point range (15 for 35 on Tuesday night).
"I think the game on Wednesday night, with the way Charlotte's playing, will be a good test for us to see if we're improving and if we're getting better ... because I think they're playing really well," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Monday night's easy victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Big man Greg Monroe sat out Monday night's game via coach's decision.
"We probably threw him to the wolves early, and we'll continue to play him," Stevens said. "We have great confidence in him. It's just a matter of I thought those other guys were playing so well in that first stint."
The Celtics have won the last six meetings, including the first two of three encounters this season. The 90-87 victory by the Celtics in Boston on Nov. 10 was the Celtics' 11th straight win in what would turn out to be a 16-game winning streak.
Howard's six rebounds Tuesday moved him past Bob Pettit into 17th place on the NBA's all-time list.