Al Horford surprised to hear so many boos back in Atlanta

George Henry -- Associated Press

ATLANTA — Al Horford was caught by surprise Friday night.

Returning with a new team to Philips Arena, the former Hawks center quickly realized that he’s no longer a fan favorite.

He heard plenty of cheers, too, but the boos were tough to accept.

“They weren’t expected, but it is what it is,” Horford said. “I know there’s a lot of fans out there that appreciated my time here, and I appreciate them.”

He was booed in pregame introductions, booed when he touched the ball and booed whenever he returned from a breather on the bench. It didn’t help that he and the Boston Celtics took a 103-101 victory, snapping the Hawks’ seven-game winning streak.

“You don’t boo a guy like that,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said after scoring 28 points. “You’re not turning down money like that. None of them people that are booing are turning down that money, so he went to a situation he thought may be a little better.

“Like I said, a guy like that, with that type of character, you can’t boo him. That’s disrespectful.”

Horford, who finished the game with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists, acknowledged earlier in the day that a big part of his heart will always be in the Deep South.

“I always tried to be a guy that plays hard and was committed to giving his all, on and off the court,” he said. “So that’s something I’m really proud of.”

Horford led Florida to back-to-back national championships before the Hawks drafted him No. 3 overall in 2007. But despite making the playoffs in each of Horford’s nine seasons, the Hawks only got close to the NBA Finals once, in 2015. They won 60 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time.

Atlanta was swept by Cleveland each of the last two years, and coach Mike Budenholzer has remade the roster. Kyle Korver now plays for Cleveland, Jeff Teague for Indiana and DeMarre Carroll for Toronto.

The Hawks have rebuilt around Atlanta native Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star center, and point guard Dennis Schroder. The overhaul continues to be a work in process with just four players with double-digit scoring averages and the team lacks consistent perimeter shooting.

“It really has changed fast,” Horford said. “That just shows us what the NBA business can be like sometimes. That’s just the way it is. All you can do is embrace those times that you had here and accept these new challenges that we’re in.”

There was plenty at stake tonight with Boston third and Atlanta fourth in the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics snapped the Hawks’ seven-game winning streak. Boston has won six of seven.

Horford, a four-time All-Star, said many times over the years that he wanted to spend his entire career with the Hawks, but when they wouldn’t match Boston’s four-year, $113 million offer, his decision was easy.

“I think for me individually it was the right decision,” Horford said. “It takes time to adjust to a new team, a new city and everything, but my teammates and coach have made my transition very easy.”

Thomas credits Horford with helping him get off to the best start of his six-year career. Thomas is averaging 28.2 points, tied for fourth-best in the league. Horford is averaging 15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

“He helps me out because he puts me in position,” Thomas said. “He sets really good screens for me to get me open and he also is a hell of a passer, so when he gets the ball in situations where I’m on the opposite side, he usually finds me. I think that’s what making me have a pretty good year as well.”

Thomas said the Celtics accomplished their goal Friday – to get a win for Big Al.

“That’s all we wanted,” Thomas said.

Horford was all smiles in the locker room as his teammates offered congratulations after the game.

“They made a bigger deal of it than I did,” Horford said. “I was just ready to play. I just appreciate their effort and everything they did.”