AP NEWS

Al Horford returns to Atlanta, where he came of age in NBA

January 13, 2017 GMT

ATLANTA — Two seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks were on their way to a 60-win season, and when Mike Budenholzer went on to coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team, he brought Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague along to Madison Square Garden.

It was Horford’s third All-Star Game appearance — No.?4 came a year later — and no NBA team was better represented that year. They kept rolling, right into a sweep by Cleveland in the conference finals.

Horford returns tonight to Atlanta, the place where so much seemed possible two seasons ago, for the first time as a Celtic. Korver was traded to Cleveland earlier this month, and Teague is now a Pacer.

DeMarre Carroll, another important player on the 2015 Hawks, had become so good Atlanta couldn’t afford to pay both him and Millsap at market value. Now a part of Toronto’s improving hopes, Carroll understands Horford’s decision to join the Celtics.

“It surprised me, but Al always wanted to move out to the 4, and he could never do that in Atlanta,” Carroll said this week. “He wanted to step out, be a 4 and shoot 3’s. It kind of prolonged his career. That’s why he’s going to like Boston.”

Horford made that choice despite being the beloved face of the Hawks for nine seasons. Atlanta made the playoffs every year. Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers are still considered Hawks for life in Atlanta, even if both finished their careers on other teams. Horford, based on his basketball status and popularity in the community, was moving that way.

“Not anymore,” Atlanta’s Thabo Sefolosha said yesterday. “He had been there the longest, and he was a big part of the organization. He represented the organization really well. That’s him being who he is.”

There’s disappointment in the Hawks swingman’s voice. Count him among those surprised by Horford.

“A little bit, yeah. Just with what we were building,” he said. “We have a great team, we’ve been in the playoffs the last two years since I’ve been here. We were in a good spot, especially with what we did two years ago.

“I looked at it this way — that it’s interesting to be part of it, and to keep building with this team. But he decided otherwise,” he added. “To be honest I didn’t talk with him, so I don’t know what the decision was about. I can respect it — a player who wants to change teams, and go somewhere that he feels is a better fit for him.”

Asked if he was frustrated by the departure of so many members of a winning team, Sefolosha shook his head. “Nah,” he said, “It’s part of the game you see everywhere. As a player I can only respect his decision.”

So it’s going to be “weird” tonight. Horford used that word Wednesday, and Millsap agreed yesterday.

“It’s weird,” Millsap said. “As a basketball fan myself, it’s weird to see Al Horford in a Celtics uniform. Watching him when I was in Utah play for Atlanta for so many years, to see him in another jersey is weird.”

An entirely new direction

The Hawks replaced Horford with an entirely different kind of player in Dwight Howard. They replaced Horford’s versatile skill with a meat-and-potatoes rim protector and scorer. Atlanta’s look is now more traditional.

And Horford is now shooting 3-pointers at a career pace, with 4.5 attempts a game for the Celtics. That’s where Budenholzer saw Horford’s game progressing, and where tonight he’ll see that feature on display for the Celtics.

Sefolosha has no doubt Horford is even better now than last season, when he first got serious about the 3-pointer.

“He works extremely hard and is extremely meticulous with what he does,” said Sefolosha. “He wanted to add that to his game to have a chance to do that.”

Carroll, who came into his own thanks to the 3-pointer, also could see Horford’s growth on the horizon as a deep threat.

“He’s different now. He can shoot 3’s, drive past you and dunk, grab the rebound and get out full-court,” said Carroll. “That’s all made him very versatile. Coach can play you anywhere on the floor. He was just mid-range before. When I left he started gradually moving out, and now he’s considered a run-out. It’s crazy he can just keep getting confidence and building. That’s what he can do.”

That’s also part of what Atlanta lost.

“Al has such a presence, and for him to really welcome me and a different way of playing, a different style, I’m very grateful,” said Budenholzer. “He’s just a great pro who sets a tone every day he comes to work — very coachable, open.”

But not so open that Budenholzer had an easy sell.

“I don’t know what the right word is,” said Atlanta’s coach. “I probably wouldn’t say easy, but it was something over time he appreciated how important it was to us and he was capable of doing it, and he kept working on it. It felt (like) it took a little time, and once it got there it was something that was a big part of his game.”

Nothing unique with ’Nique

Horford isn’t the first Hawks icon to return to Atlanta in strange laundry of a visiting team. Wilkins returned first with the Clippers in the spring of 1994, then in the fifth game of the next season as a new member of the C’s. He remembers the Celtics jersey making it especially tough.

“Very strange,” said Wilkins, who is now a vice president with the Hawks. “The Celtics were our rivals. It was that way for a long time, all of those playoff series, and then I went to play for the Celtics.

“It was kind of sad for people. People were distraught to see me go. But the Atlanta fans have always shown me nothing but respect.”

Wilkins, like everyone, doesn’t know what to expect for Horford.

“It will be interesting to see,” ’Nique said. “We all saw him come of age here.”