Rivalries are part of what makes sports amazing. The Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees. The Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. The New England Patriots vs… Eli Manning.
And in recent years, the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have developed a rivalry.
Since the 2014-15 season, Boston holds a 31-13 record against Philadelphia, playoffs included. It goes back to the Embiid quote: “This is not a rivalry. I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our a**.”
Regardless, there’s clearly a certain hatred between the two sides. Both teams turn up the heat at least a little bit when they face off, and the fans of each franchise generally can’t stand one another.
But amid all the chaos, one man stands out. Al Horford.
The animosity between the Celtics and 76ers goes deeper with Horford, who is generally level–headed. It’s not that Horford carries a giant disdain for the city of Philadelphia. No. It’s the other way around.
CelticsBlog’s sister site and SB Nation’s 76ers page, Liberty Ballers, recently wrote an article detailing “A hater’s guide to the Boston Celtics.” It begins with the phrase, “The Boston Celtics suck,” and discusses how frustratingly good Boston is.
The article goes on to list the top five Celtics players 76ers fans should hate the most. Jayson Tatum could be an obvious answer, as he nailed a game-winning three over the 76ers earlier this season. Marcus Smart deserves a claim atop the list with his generally frustrating antics.
But no. Horford ranks number one.
In fact, Horford owns so much real estate inside of 76ers’ fans’ heads that his sister, Anna Horford, decided to buy some property, too.
Philadelphia can’t seem to get over the fact that they completely botched their 2019 offseason and proceeded to horrendously mismanage their utilization of Horford.
Celtics fans dreaded seeing Horford, a fan-favorite in Boston, join the 76ers. Yet two years later, he returned to the green and white, gift-wrapped on a silver platter by the Oklahoma City Thunder. A team who received a first-round pick from the 76ers just to take on Horford’s contract.
And, for what it’s worth, it seems as though for every second Horford spent away from Boston, all he could think about was returning.
“I tell people I think we fully manifested his return to Boston because we all wanted it so badly. We kind of put that out there,” Anna Horford told Jared Weiss of The Athletic last June. “Al has alluded to that, as well. He always was homesick for Boston when he was in Philly and when he was in Oklahoma. Somehow, the stars aligned, and we got back here, and it just worked out perfectly.”
Three years removed from his lone year in Philadelphia and Horford is still on the minds of 76ers fans. The team’s failure to effectively compete with that 2018-19 group is a big part of their hatred, but it’s also rooted in the fact that Horford has dominated the 76ers every chance he’s gotten since.
During his time in Philadephia, Horford shot 35.0% from distance–his lowest mark since his years with the Atlanta Hawks. Since departing, in six games against the 76ers, Horford has shot 15-of-34 (44.1%) from beyond the arc.
That includes an earth-scorching performance at the end of February, where the Celtics made an impressive comeback behind three huge Horford triples.
“Man, Al was huge, right?” said Tatum after the game. “He’s the reason why we came back in the game. We were down 15, I don’t think he had scored yet, and I think he hit four threes in that third quarter and catapult[ed] that run to go up to start the fourth.”
But in addition to his three-point mastery, Horford has historically given Embiid problems. Admittedly, Embiid got the best of Horford this season, shooting 18-of-28 against the Celtics big man. But that’s a newfound success for Embiid.
Last year, he shot 5-of-16 against Horford. In the year prior to his move to Philadelphia, Embiid was 18-of-44. And the season before that, he was 4-of-11 in the regular season and 12-of-33 in the postseason.
When Horford joined the 76ers, it was speculated that one of Philadelphia’s primary reasons for making the move was so Embiid wouldn’t have to deal with Horford in the East anymore. (Narrator: Spoiler alert, it didn’t work out well.)
The point is that heading into Boston’s second-round series, the Celtics are focused on Embiid, James Harden, and getting the job done. And from the look of it, the 76ers (their fans, at least) are focused on Horford.
Luckily for Boston, that’s the way Horford likes it.
“I like it,” Horford said when asked about the Philadelphia crowd’s constant trash talk. “I take it as respect. I wasn’t having my best game offensively [and] I feel like that kind of got me going.”