Season opener tomorrow is gigantic
Wednesday night’s season opener is a gigantic deal for the 76ers.
They open the 2019-20 campaign against the longtime Atlantic Division rival Celtics on national television.
The talented Sixers, who haven’t secured an NBA title since 1982-83, have extremely high hopes as legitimate championship contenders.
For Al Horford, the game is much more than that.
Horford gets to face Boston, a team for whom he played the last three seasons. Horford and the Celts won an average of 52.3 games and advance to a pair of Eastern Conference finals, losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers on both occasions.
“It’s definitely going to be weird for me, different,” said Horford after Sunday’s Sixers practice. “It’s definitely not just another game. It’s the first game, (so) once we play, both sides will be able to move on with their seasons.”
Besides being Boston’s best big man, Horford was a respected mentor to many of the Celtics’ young players. Several of them have been quoted as saying how much they miss Horford, who spent his first nine professional seasons as an Atlanta Hawk.
“Al is my guy,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown told reporters.
Horford is looking forward to the game in one way, but not so much in another.
“(I expect it to be) very emotional,” Horford said. “(There’s) a lot of guys you went to battle with, won a lot of games together. (I have) a lot of respect for all the players and the coaches and the organization in general. I really felt like I made the most of my time when I was there.”
The Celtics won five playoff series with Horford, including a 4-1 victory over the Sixers in the 2016-17 conference semifinals.
Horford didn’t play the Hawks until Game 40 during his first season in Boston, so this will be an entirely new experience for him.
“He feels something, I’m sure, a little bit differently than we would feel,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “It’s the Celtics – it’s a conference rival. It’s the start of the year. There’s a lot of things that you could accurately be excited about. (But) I bet he feels, internally, a heck of a lot more than us.”
The Celts and Horford were reportedly discussing a three-year contract for him to remain in Beantown last summer, according to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. Once general manager Elton Brand and the Sixers offered a four-year, $109 million deal, $93 of which was guaranteed, the 33-year-old Horford couldn’t say no to Philly.
In addition to more money and years than the Celtics, the Sixers, with young all-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, provided Horford with a better opportunity to win now, which is important to him.
“It’s the way this business is,” Horford said. “I’ve learned that throughout the years.”
Horford brings a veteran presence to the Sixers, as well as plenty of oncourt versatility. After three seasons of playing against Embid, he’s starting at power forward alongside Embiid. He should also back up Embiid at center, and start in Embiid’s spot when the Sixers give him occasional nights off in an effort to ensure he’s finally healthy for the postseason.
Horford can score inside and outside, hitting just under 40 percent of his 3-pointers over the past two season. He is an excellent passer, a rim protector and can defend smaller guys when he switches on them, and has a good feel for the game.
He’s been to the conference finals three times, also falling to James and the Cavs with the Hawks, and is a five-time all-star.
This week, he’s also a bit of an advance scout.
“He is a resource,” Brown said. “I have him speak to the team, ask him what he thinks. What do you think you’d like to share with us as it relates to opening night (vs. the) Celtics? He’s great. He’s thoughtful. He’s smart. He’s a veteran. And he helps me.”
Horford should end up helping the Sixers in a lot of ways X. If all goes well, it could be enough to reach the NBA Finals and give him the one thing his resume lacks.
Tom Moore: email@example.com; @TomMoorePhilly