ATLANTA — It was an emotional time for Al Horford, his former Hawks teammates and jilted Atlanta fans when the free agent made his return as a member of the Boston Celtics last season.
That’s in the past now, though. Horford has established himself as the veteran leader of a Boston team with the best record in the NBA, and the Hawks are in a full-blown rebuild.
The Celtics take an eight-game winning streak into their Monday night game against the Hawks at Philips Arena. They look like a team that still could challenge for the Eastern Conference title despite losing Gordon Hayward — their big free agent signing this season — to a gruesome broken ankle in the opener.
Kyrie Irving, acquired in a trade with Cleveland, has been instant offense, but the key for the Celtics (8-2) has been the stingy defense they are exhibiting for coach Brad Stevens.
Boston has allowed 94 points or fewer in every game of the winning streak.
“We’re playing the right way,” Horford said. “I mean, it’s good that our record’s like this, but the thing that makes me happy is that we’re playing the right way. If you do that, we put ourselves in position to win.”
Horford has been turning in his usual well-balanced games. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists Sunday Boston’s 104-88 victory at Orlando, right on his season averages.
“I feel like as a group, Coach really has us locked in and understanding we need to get better each game,” Horford said.
Irving, who wanted to get out of LeBron James’ shadow in Cleveland, has fit in seamlessly with the Celtics.
“We’re in a solid place,” said Irving, who leads Boston in scoring and assists. “Our defensive principles really work for us when we’re playing at a high level, and offensively we’ve just got to continue to get better.”
The Hawks (2-8) won Sunday for the first time since their opener at Dallas, beating the Cavaliers in Cleveland 117-115 to snap an eight-game losing streak despite missing five players with injuries.
Dennis Schroder had 28 points and nine assists, but the Hawks got key contributions from almost everyone available. Luke Babbitt and Taurean Prince each scored 17 points, while Kent Bazemore and Isaiah Taylor had 14 points apiece. John Collins added 12 points and 13 rebounds.
“Just really happy with our activity, with our competitiveness,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I felt like (it was) the most together (we’ve been).”
Although the Cavaliers haven’t played close to expectations this season, it was still a spirit-lifting victory for a rebuilding team in the midst of a long losing streak.
“I don’t worry about it being accepted. I do worry about it just weighing on them,” Budenholzer had said of the losses. “They are competitive guys. They want to have success.”
The Hawks won two of the three games against the Celtics last season, losing only Horford’s first game back in Atlanta.
Horford had little success against his old team, totaling 20 points and 17 rebounds for the three games.