The amount of traffic in the Boston Celtics' locker room tends to vary before games, but typically there's no shortage of activity as players dress or pass through on their way to neighboring training and workout rooms. Before one game last week at TD Garden, Al Horford sat alone in his corner stall, munching on his usual pregame snack and watching film, when it was noted how the other 14 lockers were vacant around him.
"Everyone has their own routine, I guess," shrugged Horford.
For nine seasons, Horford rarely left the comforts of his routine with the Atlanta Hawks. Even when Horford reached free agency this summer, it was fair to wonder if Atlanta would be his only NBA home. But with the goal of spending the back nine of his NBA career with a team capable of emerging as the sort of true title contender that Atlanta never elevated to, Horford made the difficult decision to remove himself from his comfort zone when he signed a four-year, $113 million contract with the Celtics.
On Friday, Horford returns to Atlanta for the first time in a visitor's uniform when the Celtics visit the Hawks (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). In typical Horford fashion, he's downplayed the hype surrounding his return. Horford admits it will be "different" and said he's genuinely looking forward to the experience, but he also seems uncomfortable when the subject of his return overshadows the inspired basketball that the Celtics have played lately in winning 11 of their last 14 games while distinguishing themselves behind the Cavaliers and Raptors in the East.
"He's just the ultimate pro. He doesn't care about anything, individually," said Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. "He's all for the team, no matter what the situation. He's levelheaded no matter what. He's the calm one in this room, but at the same time, you know those games are big. You want to play well, you want to beat your former team.
"But that's our job. We've got to take care of business for him and make sure he plays well and, most importantly, get the win."
Horford was worth every penny of Boston's $113 million investment from the second he agreed to sign with the team this summer. In committing to the Celtics, Horford dispelled the longstanding notion that big-name free agents will not come to Boston. His signing made it OK for other elite players -- such as fellow free agent Kevin Durant -- to truly consider the Celtics. Horford's presence upgraded the Celtics from a cute upstart to one of the few teams capable of truly pushing the Cavaliers in the East.
That's part of the reason that, when asked at the end of 2016 to detail his favorite moments from the past calendar year, Celtics coach Brad Stevens locked in on Horford's signing.
"Not just because of who he is as a player, but for a guy, the caliber of person he is, to see that there's a lot of good things going on and to choose us was a real positive sign," Stevens said. "He's been a great addition to our organization."
Some look at Horford's stat line -- 15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists -- and wonder if that's production worthy of an average salary north of $28 million. But basic numbers have never told the story with Horford.
As Horford's former college coach Billy Donovan notes, "I believe great players make people around them better. And that's what [Horford] does."
The Celtics own a net rating of plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions with Horford on the court. The team's net rating when he's off the floor has lingered in the negative for much of the season but has spiked slightly to plus-0.8 at the moment (only teammate Jae Crowder's number is lower when off the floor, reflecting Boston's drop-off without them).
One need only look at the absurd offensive numbers that Thomas is putting up this season to understand Horford's impact. Horford's passing talents, his ability to stretch the floor and his versatility in the pick-and-roll have created more space and better looks for Thomas, who has cemented his All-Star status in the East.
"[Horford's] basketball IQ is very high, and he's just a guy that's always in the right spots at the right time," Thomas said. "He makes things so much easier for me with just being in the right spots and being a factor where he can shoot or put it on the floor and make a play for somebody else. He knows how to play the game, so he makes it easier for everybody."
In a league of oversized personalities, Horford is content to quietly go about his work. Outside of occasional updates to his Instagram page, Horford largely avoids social media. Go ahead and call him Al Boreford, because his quotes rarely raise eyebrows and Horford is content to fill his spare time by working on his game. It's not unusual to see Horford spend extra time before games or after practice working with assistant Jay Larranaga. The two will often analyze film or go through a shooting routine.
Horford would rather gush about one of Boston's younger players such as Marcus Smart or Kelly Olynyk than discuss his own game. Horford's ability to fly below the radar has allowed Thomas to remain the face of the Celtics franchise and gobble up the spotlight.
"He has an unbelievable awareness inside the locker room of how to generate and create chemistry and bring guys together," said Donovan. "He's an incredible competitor, and he understands the things that impact winning, and he makes a difference in those areas that impact winning."
Some Celtics fans see the size of Horford's contract and quibble with his output. Even though Horford has hit a couple of game winners -- a last-second putback in Detroit and a clutch late 3-pointer versus the 76ers last week -- they want more from Horford, particularly in games against the top competition that Boston has struggled to beat this season.
Horford is shooting a career-worst 45.6 percent from the field and only 33.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. His attempts from distance have spiked to 4.5 per game for a player who only attempted 29 3-pointers through his first seven NBA seasons.
With Amir Johnson playing the center role, Horford has been able to play his preferred power forward position more in Boston. Horford has embraced Stevens' desire to stretch the floor and hasn't been afraid to fire away from beyond the 3-point arc. He admits he never could have envisioned putting up this many 3s earlier in his career.
"It's been different but now I'm OK with it," Horford said. "I do realize that it's important to be a threat at the 3-point line. The way our offense is set up, if I'm not on the block, I'm going to be around the 3-point line a lot of the time. I have to be ready to shoot it when it's called or make a play."
While it's clear Horford has been given the green light to fire from the perimeter, the numbers suggest Horford has a subtler impact when he's on the floor.
Horford is averaging 12 assist points created per game, according to the league's player-tracking data. That's the 30th best number in the NBA among players with at least 20 games played, meaning Horford creates more points off assists than some team's primary point guards. Among players 6-foot-10 or taller, only Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo (14.1) averages more points created than Horford.
Stevens loves to run his team's offense through big men, which is part of the reason he's so smitten by Horford, who is averaging 51.6 passes per game, which ranks him 30th overall in the league. In fact, that's just one pass per game less than Steph Curry averages in Golden State's pass-happy offense.
But Horford is the first to admit that he's still getting comfortable with his new team.
"It's been a new experience for me, a learning experience," Horford said. "Really just trying to get acclimated as quickly as I can. Just going to battle with these guys every day and getting to know them and really learning how to play in this system. It's something I'm taking day by day and trying to be better."
It would seem likely that Horford will be showered with affection upon his return to Atlanta. But the Hawks have won seven straight to move right behind Boston in the Eastern Conference standings. This is an important game for a Celtics team that left itself at the mercy of tiebreakers last season then got bounced by Horford and the Hawks in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, there's a lot of optimism in Boston these days because of the way the team has played and where this team believes it can go. Yes, this Celtics team has obvious flaws -- even with Horford on board, their defense has slipped and Boston desperately needs to shore up its rebounding issues. But Horford is intrigued by the development of the team's young core and believes both he and his teammates will be more consistent when the playoffs start in April.
After all, it was the team's promising future that sold Horford on Boston over the summer.
As Thomas notes, "[Horford] loved the young team we had and the direction we were going."
It was enough to give Horford the confidence to ditch his routine. It was enough for him to bid farewell to what he had known in Atlanta for what might be in Boston.