ORLANDO — The least surprised of anyone that the Celtics would be facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs was Al Horford, who just two years ago sank a pivotal layup that helped Boston bury Philadelphia in the conference semis.
Fast forward to the NBA bubble and Horford is a member of the 76ers, a team that has underachieved all season, despite adding Horford to a four-year, $109 million package, and will have to get through Boston to perhaps avoid a franchise implosion.
With All-Star forward Ben Simmons expected to miss the series following left knee surgery and the 76ers dealing with chemistry issues, Joel Embiid’s mercurial attitude and a dismal road record, the 76ers stumble into the playoffs as the sixth seed, a far cry from the team some projected to win the East.
The consequences of losing could be catastrophic for the 76ers. Coach Brett Brown could lose his job. The roster could undergo an overhaul, so this series means just as much to Philadelphia as Boston and the central storyline is Horford, who spent three years with the Celtics before shockingly departing for Philadelphia.
It won’t be the same as strolling through the visitor’s tunnel at TD Garden but the significance of facing his former team, which has bounced back from a chaotic previous season, is not lost on Horford. He helped the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals twice in his three seasons but he was also part of last year’s squad that folded in the semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
While the Celtics assumed Horford would return on a reworked deal, he stunned the organization by signing with Philadelphia. The Celtics did not come close to matching the 76ers’ offer.
“Coming into the bubble we knew it was a possibility,” he said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity. It’s part of the business. We’ve already played them plenty of times this year so that effect is out of the way, so now we can just go out there and compete. It should be a fun series.”
While the money may have been plentiful for Horford, the pastures weren’t greener on the floor. Horford’s numbers dipped considerably from his final year in Boston. He averaged fewer points, shot a lower percentage from the floor and 3-point line and even from the free throw line in comparison to 2018-19.
While he said he would relish playing with a legitimate center in Embiid, Horford struggled to adapt. The projected starting five of Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Horford and Embiid finished just 13-10. Horford struggled from the 3-point line and couldn’t find a comfortable spot on the floor with Simmons essentially a non-shooter and floating around like a power forward.
Eventually Horford was moved to the bench for the three games in the bubble before Simmons’s injury. With the 76ers using a truer point guard in Shake Milton, Horford replaced Simmons. It’s been a difficult year for Horford because he has received a portion of the blame for the team’s struggles.
As Celtics faithful found out, Horford isn’t flashy or spectacular. His numbers and play are steady and that takes time to translate to a new fan base and organization.
“It’s been a long process and for me personally this time off has helped me just because it’s helped me understand a little more how I need to play here, some of the things I need to do,” he told the Globe. “I’m playing much different than when I was up in Boston. It’s a different challenge for me that I think I’m at the point that I’m in a good place and I want to see what our team has. I’m excited about it.”
It has taken nearly a season for Horford to get used to playing with the 7-foot-1 space eater Embiid, one of the league’s best post players. Unlike in Boston when he was the primary center, Horford found himself having to hover near the 3-point line or on the weakside to allow Embiid to work.
“It changes the way the floor is laid out so for me it was getting used to a guy that plays out of the post,” Horford said. “I feel like right now we have good synergy. We’re figuring it out and I like what we’ve been able to do the past few games.”
“It was great; I loved playing there and just appreciative of the organization, the fans, the way that they took me in. When I went up there it was with one goal was to win a championship. Obviously that didn’t happen but I don’t have one bad thing to say about my time in Boston. My time in Boston was great.”
When asked if the 76ers have the talent to reach the Finals as had been predicted, Horford said: “I’m not sure man. You honestly can’t even look that far ahead. In just being very honest, Boston is probably playing as good as anybody right now. I can’t even let myself run with that thought. My focus right now is how we can be great and get ready for this big challenge.”
Horford said he had nothing but fond memories of his time in Boston. But the 76ers’ lucrative offer along with what he thought was a better chance to win a championship enticed him to leave. It’s still to be determined whether it was the right move.
But for the Celtics’ benefit, if Horford does not leave, the club doesn’t have the salary cap space to sign Kemba Walker.
“It was great; I loved playing there and just appreciative of the organization, the fans, the way that they took me in,” he said. “When I went up there it was with one goal was to win a championship. Obviously that didn’t happen but I don’t have one bad thing to say about my time in Boston. My time in Boston was great.”