It was one of the most enjoyable moments of the NBA playoffs.
During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard drives paint against Tyler Hero of the Miami Heat and Hit a short bird. Pritchard then put one of his hands close to the ground, a common taunt in the NBA to signify that the defender is too small to guard the taunt.
Pritchard is barely six feet tall and is, in nearly all NBA positions, the youngest player on the field. Herro is four inches taller than him.
“The game is competitive, so, I mean there will always be little squabbles here and there” Pritchard deadlocked in a recent interview.
Usually, Pritchard is on the receiving end of that sarcasm.
“If you give it,” he said, “you have to take it too.”
Pritchard, the sophomore guard, was often considered so young that at the University of Oregon, he was sometimes mistaken for the team principal.
“I go in there and ring regardless. They will know my name after the match,” Pritchard said.
They certainly do now. Pritchard, 24, spent his moments as a player off the bench during the playoffs. During Game One of the NBA Finals against Golden State on Thursday, Pritchard helped catalyze Boston’s comeback in the fourth quarter with 5 points and 4 rebounds in eight minutes. During those eight minutes, the Celtics He beat Golden State by 18 points.
His best post-season success was against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Pritchard has hit double-digits in scoring in three of his first four matches. In the fourth game, Pritchard scored 14 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter, dispelling any hope of a Heat return.
Boston coach Aime Odoka used him intermittently, in part because Pritchard’s size makes him an easy target in defense. In the last three Celtics series games against the Heat, Pritchard played only 12 minutes together and did not score.
He also struggled against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but in the decisive 7, he scored 14 points and then provided another viral moment. In the fourth quarter, Pritchard hit a three-point pointer that put the Celtics up 20. Pritchard turned around to the Boston bench and shouted, “That’s what I do!”
Celtics assistant coach Damon Stoddamer knows what it is like when you’re the youngest player on the field. nicknamed him through 13 years in the NBA He was a Mighty Mouse because he was less than 6 feet tall.
“The kind of moments you capture in front of the camera, nobody really thinks about it,” he said of Pritchard’s triple pointer against the Bucks. “But man, this is a lot built,” he said.
He added, “He’s just the one who showed 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 picked Pritchard, who is from West Lane, Oregon, with the 26th pick from the 2020 draft after his four-year college career in Oregon, where he was First team All-American and the program helped make it to the Final Four of the NCAA Championship.
Incidentally, Pritchard was one of the best bouncers out of Oregon since Stoddamere, a Portland native who Pritchard had known since he was a boy. Like Stoudamire, Pritchard was known for his scoring prowess, his ability to shoot and superior confidence.
“When I entered the NBA, I was more prepared for the NBA at that time to get in and play right away” Pritchard said.
He’s had a good 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 fired 41.1 percent of 3 in 19.2 minutes per game.
But this season has been full of bumps. In the first half, Pritchard was buried again on the depth chart. When he played, he couldn’t shoot the ball. He appeared in 71 of 82 games this season. In the first 49, Pritchard fired just 37.8 percent from the field and was playing just 12.3 minutes a game, down from his rookie year.
Some nights, he wasn’t playing at all. He said it was “very frustrating”.
Stoddamer described it as “mentally exhausting” on Pritchard.
“Throughout his life, he’s been a focal point in most teams,” Stoddamer said. “Now, he can’t even come off the bench. He doesn’t really know why. As a staff member, we tried our best to talk to him. Like I told him, it really has nothing to do with you. It’s really just numbers.”
This led to some difficult conversations between Udoka as well Native of Oregonand Pritchard. The two also had a relationship dating back to Pritchard’s youth.
“I asked him once if he had seen me play here. Am I good enough to play? ‘ said Pritchard. ‘I believed in myself. I was always good enough. But is this appropriate? He just reassured me, and the trade deadline happened. Then the opportunity came.”
Among a series of moves at the deadline, the Celtics replaced two veteran guards who had been playing Pritchard – Dennis Schroeder and Josh Richardson – and brought back goalkeeper Derek White of the San Antonio Spurs. Suddenly, things started to turn towards Pritchard.
After the All-Star break, he had the best run of his career, averaging 9.6 points per game on 50.3 percent of shots in 22 games. He was a top three-point shooter in the league in that period with 47.3 percent. He played so well that in the playoffs, Odoka trusted him at times to play crucial minutes in tight matches, including against the talented Nets in the first round and now against Golden State in the Finals.
If Pritchard is to succeed in the long term, he will need to find a way to overcome his defensive struggles. Especially in the Bucks series, Pritchard occasionally found himself in a singles situation with Giannis Antetokounmpo who is 6 feet 11 feet tall. Improbably, Pritchard occasionally kept on his own. But for now, shooting Pritchard is what keeps him grounded. The vast majority of his shots are 3 seconds. In 19 post-season games, he fired 46.5% from the field and 37.7% from 3.
“During these playoffs his big games were always games where we pulled away due to his momentum shooting,” Stoddamer said.
His re-emergence – or re-emergence as a shot-maker – comes as no surprise to Pritchard. As he might say: it is in the end what he does.