Al Horford's NBA journey is about to come full-circle.
Horford's Boston Celtics will battle the Atlanta Hawks in their first-round NBA playoff matchup after Atlanta upset the Miami Heat in Tuesday's NBA play-in tournament game. The Hawks' victory means Horford gets to face the team that selected him third overall in the 2007 NBA Draft and employed him for nine NBA seasons from 2007 to 2016.
Fittingly, Horford's last win in a Hawks uniform came against the Celtics, as Atlanta defeated Boston in six games of their 2016 first-round playoff series before getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Boston sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Celtics Talk: Celtics set to face the Hawks after upset win over Heat, plus Derrick White 1-on-1 | Listen & Subscribe
Celtics fans know what happened next: On July 2, 2016, Horford agreed to a four-year, $ 113 contract with Boston, becoming arguably the biggest free-agent signing in team history at the time as a four-time All-Star.
The Hawks reportedly made a strong push to keep Horford in free agency, but he instead joined a Celtics franchise that hadn't won a playoff game since the Big Three disbanded following the 2012 postseason. So what motivated him to leave Atlanta -- which had made the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons -- for a middling Boston team?
It turns out the TD Garden crowd in that 2016 postseason series played a key role. From The Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach following Horford's Celtics deal in July 2016:
In Atlanta, support at home games was sometimes tepid, despite the fact that the Hawks had gone 108-56 over the last two years.
"There wasn’t as much motivation for him when he saw all the empty seats when they were winning," (Horford's father), Tito Horford said. "He said to me, 'Dad, when we were playing Boston, they were down 15 points and they were cheering their team like they were winning the game. They’re so into the game.' This is special for us, especially for him."
Simply put, Horford wanted to play in front of a more passionate fanbase, and he certainly got that in Boston. The Celtics' winning tradition also lured Horford away from Atlanta, as evidenced by the 18 shamrocks he tweeted following his deal -- 17 for the team's 17 championships, and one for the next one.
Horford's signing represented a crucial turning point for the Celtics, who lured Gordon Hayward to Boston the following season and traded for Kyrie Irving. While neither of those acquisitions worked out, they signaled that Boston was now a legitimate NBA destination and helped accelerate the team's rebuild, which has come to fruition over the last two seasons with the young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart leading the charge.
Horford has played 340 games for the Celtics over four seasons since July 2016 -- interrupted by one-year stints in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City -- and while he's still waiting on his first championship, he can begin that title journey by advancing past his former team this spring.