ATLANTA — This is what the Boston Celtics had in mind when they signed Al Horford away from the Atlanta Hawks.
The Celtics viewed the veteran center as the missing piece that could put them in contention for a championship. Horford, who played in Atlanta from 2007 to 2016, was willing to take less money from the Celtics to be a part of the equation.
The move has worked out well for Boston, which takes its crusade to win the Eastern Conference championship to Atlanta on Thursday. Horford’s departure hasn’t worked out as well for the flailing Hawks, who are trying to hang on and make the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
Horford is averaging 14.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists — an NBA-best for centers — in his first season with Boston. He has missed nine games with a concussion, two with a sore left groin and two with a right elbow sprain.
Horford has not yet come back to haunt his old team. He had 10 points and six rebounds against the Hawks in Atlanta and six points and six rebounds in the rematch in Boston.
Atlanta and Boston have split the two previous games this season, with each winning on the road.
Atlanta (39-38) has lost two straight and dropped nine of its last 11 games. The Hawks lost consecutive road games to Charlotte and Brooklyn and are in sixth place, 1 1/2 games ahead of Chicago, Miami and Indiana.
“These are good tests for us,” forward Paul Millsap said. “We have to rise to the occasion.”
At least the Hawks are getting healthier. Millsap returned from missing eight games with left knee tightness and scored 14 points in 25 minutes in a 91-82 loss to the Nets.
Guard Kent Bazemore returned from a right knee contusion three games ago and has not played more than 21 minutes. Both will likely continue to have their minutes monitored, even though it has the potential to affect the team’s playoff standing.
Bazemore said, “We aren’t worried about a seed going into the playoffs because we know what type of team we can be when everything is clicking.”
Guard Thabo Sefolosha has missed the last five games with a right groin strain and is not expected to play against Boston. Backup point guard Malcolm Delaney missed the last two games with back spasms but will be available Thursday.
Boston (50-28) dropped out of a first-place tie with Cleveland after losing 114-91 to the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Guard Isaiah Thomas scored 26 points in the loss, but he was only 1-for-8 on 3-pointers.
Said Boston coach Brad Stevens: “I thought (the Cavs) were better, quicker to the ball — you name it. They were better in every category. I thought we were missing, too. We got some reasonable looks when we were playing inside-out.”
Thomas has been Boston’s leading scorer in both games against Atlanta this season. He had 28 points, including the winning jumper with 2.4 seconds left, in the win at Atlanta. Thomas has averaged 19.6 points and 6.3 assists against the Hawks in 11 career games.
This will be the 17th back-to-back for Boston this season. The Celtics have won both games four times and lost both games once.
The Hawks play at Cleveland on Friday. The Celtics are at Charlotte on Saturday.