ATLANTA – The first significant snowfall blanketed Boston recently, resulting in some school closings, delays and as always, lots of traffic jams.
So what did Boston Celtics big man Al Horford do?
He and his son Ean decided to take Mother Nature’s reminder that this is still winter and build a snow man, but there was a problem.
The snow was too soft to make into a snow man, so they instead spent the day playing in the snow which was probably more fun than their original plan.
That seems to be the story of Horford’s life on and off the basketball court; the ability to recognize and react to whatever situation is in front of him and make the best of it for him and those around him.
That innate ability served him well in leading the University of Florida to back-to-back national titles (2006-2007) after the school had never won one prior to his arrival, or since his departure.
And when moribund Atlanta Hawks selected him with the third overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, he was the face of the franchise for nine years, arguably the best nine-year run in the franchise’s history.
Now with the Boston Celtics, Horford finds himself at a Matrix-like crossroads between the franchise he help build (Atlanta) into an Eastern power, and the one he’s currently trying to take to that next level.
So it will come as a surprise to no one if the usually stoic, even-keeled Horford gets a bit emotional tonight when his past (Atlanta) and present (Boston) collide for the first time since he signed with the Celtics during free agency this past summer.
Both Horford’s current and former teammates hope that the Atlanta Hawks crowd will deliver more cheers than jeers tonight when he’s introduced with the starters and they play a video tribute to him.
“I don’t really know what to expect (tonight),” Horford told CSNNE.com. “I still have a lot of friends, a lot of people in Atlanta and with the Hawks organization that I care about and that’s not going to change whether the fans at the game boo me or not.”
Said Atlanta head coach and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer: “Al had a great run here. I’m sure they’ll be appreciative and respectful of that but ready to cheer us on and hopefully have a great night for the Hawks.”
When he arrived in Atlanta in 2013 from being an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the first to buy into this teachings was Horford, something Budenholzer acknowledged made the transition for him a lot smoother.
“Al has such a presence,” Budenholzer said. “For him to kind of welcome me and welcome a different way of playing, a different style, a different system, I’m very grateful to him. He’s very coachable, very open.”
It goes back to that innate sense Horford has when it comes to doing what ultimately works for him and those around him.
His decision to leave Atlanta, while somewhat of a surprise at the time, has actually worked out well for both him, the Celtics and Hawks.
Boston (24-15) comes into tonight’s game with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference despite Horford and other key players missing several games this season.
Atlanta (22-16) is right behind the Celtics in the standings courtesy of a seven-game winning streak, and the man brought in to replace Horford – Atlanta native Dwight Howard – hasn’t been this impactful in terms of winning in years.
Still, even with Horford as the second-best free agent this summer behind Kevin Durant, there were still those who questioned how much of a bump would the Celtics get with his arrival.
Although he’s a four-time All-Star, Horford isn’t a big-time scorer or rebounder.
“He’s a winner,” a long-time NBA scout told CSNNE.com regarding Horford. “There are some guys whose play, presence and impact will always trump his production. Al’s one of those guys.”
David Fizdale, head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks (2004-2008) during Horford’s rookie season.
“He was the one that kick started their success,” Fizdale said. “He was the beginning of our playoff run. We got Al Horford in the draft and immediately made the playoffs and that year took Boston to seven games. He was a big part of why, and he’s continued to live up to that through his career. He’s the ultimate professional. He’s a constant worker, a great teammate. He’s one of those guys you want on your team when you’re trying to win.”
Which is why the Celtics made acquiring him this summer a top priority. While there were other players that the Celtics were interested in acquiring such as Kevin Durant, Horford was always seen as the most likely signing if he decided to leave Atlanta.
Isaiah Thomas had a feeling Horford was ready to move on after meeting with him during the free agency period along with other Celtics officials and teammates.
“He was asking a lot of questions,” Thomas recalled. “He seemed very interested and he loved what we had going on here, especially from them beating us in the playoffs and him being around Boston a little bit. He loved the young team we had, the direction we were going and we just kept it real and general with him. When we left that meeting, I felt we had a really good chance at getting him and we did a day later.”
Because Horford’s strength is his versatility at both ends of the floor, it’s not all that surprising that he has fit in relatively seamless thus far.
The biggest challenge has been developing chemistry with the starters, something that has been challenged due to players in and out of the first group because of injuries.
Tonight’s game will likely be another game in which the Celtics’ preferred starting five – Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Horford – won’t be intact.
Bradley has missed the last three games with a right Achilles injury and Johnson did not play on Wednesday because of a right ankle sprain. Prior to Boston’s 117-108 win over Washington, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said it was “doubtful” that Johnson would play tonight.
While the early returns have been mostly positive for Horford, there are still those who want more from the man Boston signed to a four-year, $113 million contract this summer.
Horford missed nine games because of a concussion suffered in practice earlier this season, prompting some fans to take to social media and grumble about him being out too long.
He would later miss one game to be with his wife for the birth of their second child which led to another mini-storm of Horford haters questioning his loyalty.
Other than when he’s asked about it, Horford said he pays very little attention to what’s being reported or talked about on social media.
“The best thing for me is, a lot of people say they don’t read the media, but I really remove myself from all that,” Horford said. “I’ve just learned over the years in the league, for me it’s the best way that it works. I go out and try to do my job to the best of my ability. I’m my biggest critic. I’m always trying to find ways where I can be better. For me it’s really making sure I’m being the best that I can and try to gel as quickly as I can.”
As impressive as Isaiah Thomas has been in delivering for the Celtics in the fourth quarter, Horford knows he too must become more of a late-game performer for Boston to be all that it can be.
After suffering some gut-wrenching mishaps at the end of games, like the potential game-winning lay-up Horford blew at Houston earlier this season, he seems to have found a nice groove offensively for the Celtics down the stretch.
The best fourth quarter run he has had this season came about recently against the Philadelphia 76ers. In Boston’s 107-106 win, Horford scored 14 of his 19 points in the fourth which included a corner 3-pointer with 17.2 seconds to play that put the Celtics ahead.
And Boston has won 11 of its last 14 games, many of which have involved Horford stepping up in the fourth.
In that 14-game span, the Celtics average 30.5 points in the fourth quarter and are led by Thomas’ 12.9 points. Second on the list is Horford who has chipped in 4.1, fourth-quarter points which includes him shooting 44.4 percent on 3’s.
But when Horford thinks about his fourth quarter play, he doesn’t recollect the rebounds or assists or big shots made.
The only thing he remembers is if they won the game.
And if they didn’t, his initial thoughts shift towards what he could have done differently to change the outcome.
“I’ve been in positions where I haven’t been able to make those shots,” Horford said. “At the end of the day for me, it’s about winning and losing. Some of those games … For me it’s all about winning.”
Said Fizdale: “Knowing him that’s all he cares about. He blocks shots, he gets steals, he does every coverage perfectly. He does the things that really impact winning that you may not see in the statistical category.”
And that more than anything else, is why he’s a Boston Celtic.
“Looking at my career in the league, for me I wanted to be in a position where I could compete and win a championship,” Horford said. “I just felt like here, looking at the potential of this group … this gives me my best opportunity to do that. I’m glad to be a Boston Celtic.”