Easy to overlook, Payton Pritchard isn’t too small for the Celtics’ big moments

It was one of the most amusing moments of the NBA playoffs.

In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston Celtics backup guard Payton Pritchard drove to the bull’s eye on Miami Heat’s Tyler Herro hit a short jumper. Pritchard then put a hand near the ground, a common NBA taunt, to indicate a defender is too small to guard the taunt.

Barely over six feet tall, Pritchard is the shortest player on the court in almost every NBA situation. Herro is four inches taller than him.

“The game is competitive, so there will always be a bit of a fight here and therePritchard said nothing in a recent interview.

Usually, Pritchard is the recipient of these quibbles.

“If you spend it, you have to take it,” he said.

Pritchard, a sophomore security guard, was often considered undersized, so he was sometimes confused with the team manager at the University of Oregon.

“I go out there and ride anyway. I don’t care,” Pritchard said. “You will know my name after the game.”

They definitely do now. Pritchard, 24, had his goalscoring moments off the bench in the playoffs. During Thursday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Golden State, Pritchard helped propel Boston’s fourth-quarter comeback with 5 points and 4 rebounds in eight minutes. In those eight minutes, the Celtics surpassed Golden State by 18 points.

His best postseason success was against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Pritchard had double-digit chances in three of their first four games. In Game 4, Pritchard scored 14 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter, ending any hope of a heat comeback.

Boston coach Ime Udoka has used him sporadically, in part because Pritchard’s size makes him an easy target on defense. In the last three games of the Celtics series against the Heat, Pritchard played just 12 combined minutes and didn’t score.

He also struggled against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but in the deciding Game 7 he scored 14 points and then delivered another viral moment. In the fourth quarter, Pritchard hit a 3-pointer that took the Celtics to 20. Pritchard turned to Boston’s bench and yelled, “That’s what I do!”

Celtics assistant coach Damon Stoudamire knows what it’s like to be the smallest player on the pitch. His nickname during his 13-year NBA career was Mighty Mouse because he was less than 6 feet tall.

“Those kinds of moments that you capture on camera that nobody really thinks about,” he said of Pritchard’s 3-point win over the Bucks. “But man, that’s a lot built up,” he said.

He added: “That’s just him showing emotion there at the moment because he finally got his chance. I mean, people forget: he really didn’t play the first half of the season.”

The Celtics selected Pritchard of West Linn, Oregon with the 26th draft pick of 2020 after his four-year collegiate career in Oregon, where he was an all-American first team and helped the program reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament .

Incidentally, Pritchard has been one of Oregon’s best guards ever since Stoudamire, a Portlander Pritchard has known since childhood. Like Stoudamire, Pritchard was known for his scoring ability, shooting ability and overwhelming confidence.

“When I entered the NBA, I was the most ready for the NBA at the time to go in and play right awaysaid Pritchard.

He had a good rookie year despite having to play behind more established guards like Marcus Smart, Jeff Teague and Kemba Walker. In 66 games, Pritchard averaged 7.7 points per game and shot 41.1 percent from 3 in 19.2 minutes per game.

But this season has been bumpy. In the first half, Pritchard was once again buried on the depth chart. When he was playing, he couldn’t hit shots. He appeared in 71 of 82 games this season. In the first 49, Pritchard shot just 37.8 percent from the field and played just 12.3 minutes per game, down from his rookie year.

Some nights he didn’t play at all. He said it was “very frustrating”.

Stoudamire described it as “mentally exhausting” for Pritchard.

“All his life he’s been the focus of most teams,” said Stoudamire. “Now he can’t even get off the bench. He doesn’t know exactly why. As staff, we tried to do our best to speak to him. Like I said, it really has nothing to do with you. It’s really just the numbers.”

This led to some difficult conversations between Udoka, also from Oregon, and Pritchard. The two also had a relationship dating back to Pritchard’s youth.

I once asked him if he ever sees me play here. Am I good enough to play?” said Pritchard. “I believed in myself. I’ve always been good enough. But is this the right fit? He just reassured me and the trading deadline has expired. And then the opportunity came.”

Among a series of deadline day moves, the Celtics traded two veteran guards who had played before Pritchard – Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson – and brought back guard Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs. Suddenly, things started to work out for Pritchard.

After the All-Star break, he had a career-best stretch averaging 9.6 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting in 22 games. He was one of the better 3-point shooters in the league at 47.3 percent during that period. He played well enough that at times in the playoffs, Udoka trusted him to play crucial minutes in tight games, including in the first round against a talented Nets team and now in the Finals against Golden State.

If Pritchard is to be successful over the long term, he must find a way to overcome his defensive struggles. In the Bucks series in particular, Pritchard sometimes found himself in a one-on-one situation with the 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo. Improbably Pritchard would occasionally hold his own. But for now, Pritchard’s shot is keeping him grounded. The vast majority of his shots are 3s. In 19 postseason games, he’s shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from 3.

During those playoffs, his big games were always games where we retired because of his swing shots,” Stoudamire said.

His emergence – or reemergence as a shot maker – comes as no surprise to Pritchard. As he might say: After all, that’s what he does.

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