Easy to Overlook, Payton Pritchard Isn’t Too Small for the Celtics’ Big Moments

It was one of the more amusing moments of the N.B.A. playoffs.

During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics reserve guard Payton Pritchard drove into the paint against the Miami Heat’s Tyler Herro and hit a short jumper. Pritchard then put one hand near the floor, a common N.B.A. taunt to signify that a defender is too small to guard the taunter.

Pritchard is barely over six feet tall and is, in almost all N.B.A. situations, the smallest player on the court. Herro is four inches taller than him.

“The game is competitive, so, I mean there’s always going to be a little bickering here and there,” Pritchard deadpanned in a recent interview.

Usually, Pritchard is on the receiving end of those gibes.

“If you give it out, you’ve got to take it, too,” he said.

Pritchard, a second-year guard, has often been considered too small, to the point that at the University of Oregon, he was sometimes mistaken for the team manager.

“I go out there and hoop regardless. It doesn’t matter to me,” Pritchard said. “They’ll know my name after the game.”

They certainly do now. Pritchard, 24, has had his moments as a scorer off the bench during the playoffs. During Game 1 of the N.B.A. finals against Golden State on Thursday, Pritchard helped spur Boston’s fourth-quarter comeback with 5 points and 4 rebounds in eight minutes. During those eight minutes, the Celtics outscored Golden State by 18 points.

His best postseason success was against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Pritchard reached double digits in scoring in three of the first four games. In Game 4, Pritchard scored 14 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter, extinguishing any hope of a Heat comeback.

Incidentally, Pritchard was one of the best guards to come out of Oregon since Stoudamire, a Portland native whom Pritchard has known since he was a boy. Like Stoudamire, Pritchard was known for his scoring prowess, shooting ability and supreme confidence.

I asked him at one point if he ever sees me playing here. Am I good enough to play?” Pritchard said. “I believed in myself. I was always good enough. But is this the right fit? He just reassured me, and the trade deadline happened. And then the opportunity came.”

Among a flurry of moves at the deadline, the Celtics traded two veteran guards who had been playing ahead of Pritchard — Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson — and brought back guard Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs. Suddenly, things began to click for Pritchard.

After the All-Star break, he had the best stretch of his career, 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 in that period at 47.3 percent. He played well enough that in the playoffs, Udoka has at times trusted him to play crucial minutes in tight games, including against a talented Nets team in the first round and now against Golden State in the finals.

If Pritchard is to succeed long term, he will need to find a way to overcome his defensive struggles. Particularly in the Bucks series, 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 shooting is what keeps him on the floor. 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.

Throughout these playoffs, his big games have always been games where we pulled away because of his momentum shots,” Stoudamire said.

His emergence — or re-emergence as a shot maker — isn’t surprising to Pritchard. As he might say: It is, after all, what he does.

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