How Al Horford Became Central Piece Of Celtics-76ers Rivalry

Philadelphia saw a different version of Horford than Boston


February 2

Al Horford never was one to generate headlines on a routine basis. From the time he broke into the NBA in 2007, the soft-spoken forward maintained a playing style and personality that largely kept him away from the vitriol of even the most aggressive basketball fans.

Philadelphia 76ers fans, however, have the grounds to maintain some ill will toward the Florida product.

After playing the first nine seasons of his professional career with the Hawks, Horford left Atlanta in the summer of 2016 to sign a free-agent deal with the Celtics. Playing alongside the perpetually clutch Isaiah Thomas, Horford helped Boston regain legitimate contender status after the rough years that followed the departures of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

The Celtics resurgence coincided with the emergence of the new-look 76ers, who finally rostered faces of the franchise to be excited about years after Allen Iverson left the City of Brotherly Love. With Joel Embiid and 2018 Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons leading the way, it felt like the Sixers were on their way to becoming the top dog in the Eastern Conference.

Those feelings likely were felt in Philadelphia in the 2017-18 playoffs after the 76ers made quick work of the Miami Heat in the first round. But Philly’s championship hopes came crashing down in the semifinals when the Celtics swiftly set their longtime rival packing in five games. Horford was rock-solid for Boston in the best-of-seven series, averaging 15.4 points and eight rebounds per game.

The 76ers made it a bit closer to the ultimate goal the following season, losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals in heartbreaking fashion. Philadelphia had a good team, but it needed one more piece to be great.

Those in the Sixer’s front office at the time thought that piece was Horford, who landed a four-year, $97 million deal from Philadelphia in free agency in July 2019. The majority of Green Teamers didn’t view it as an Allen-level of betrayal from Horford, but there had to have been the thought in Boston that the do-it-all power forward was going to be a major roadblock for an ascending Celtics team.

Well, the Horford experience in Philadelphia failed to the highest degree. He ended up playing only one full season with the 76ers, averaging 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in the 2019-20 campaign. He also was a complete non-factor for the Sixers in their short-lived playoff run that season, which was a big reason why Philadelphia was handily swept by Boston in the first round.

The 76ers officially gave up on Horford in December 2020 when they hung him out to dry with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who clearly took him on to help accelerate their rebuild. Horford played a mere 28 games with OKC before Billy Donovan, his former college coach, shut him down in order to let younger Thunder players see the court. Ahead of an offseason when he turned 35 years old, the outlook on the remainder of Horford’s career was ominous.

The Celtics ultimately gave Horford a chance to rebuild his stock, and he made the most of it in spades. Horford’s averages of 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in his first season back in Boston weren’t anything to write home about, but he took his game to another level when the games started to matter more. Horford nearly averaged a double-double across 24 playoff games that summer, including a 30-point game in Milwaukee and a 26-point outburst in Golden State. His steady play helped Boston come within two victories of the 2022 NBA championship.

All the while, times grew tough in Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler was long gone, Doc Rivers’ head-coaching abilities were called into question and the organization had a very messy divorce with Simmons. The 76ers were tasked with picking up the pieces while watching a rejuvenated Horford play excellent basketball with the team that had been a thorn in their side for years.

Horford’s unfulfilled Sixers contract didn’t cripple the organization, and unsuccessful partnerships come with the territory of professional sports. But it’s safe to say Horford probably won’t be receiving many free meals in Philadelphia for as long as he lives.

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Thumbnail photo via Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports Images
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