It was one among 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 brief jumper. Pritchard then put one hand near the ground, a typical N.B.A. taunt to indicate that a defender is simply too small to protect the taunter.
Pritchard is barely over six feet tall and is, in just about all N.B.A. situations, the smallest player on the court. Herro is 4 inches taller than him.
“The sport is competitive, so, I mean there’s all the time going to be a bit of bickering here and there,” Pritchard deadpanned in a recent interview.
Normally, Pritchard is on the receiving end of those gibes.
“In the event 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 purpose that on the University of Oregon, he was sometimes mistaken for the team manager.
“I’m going on the market and hoop regardless. It doesn’t matter to me,” Pritchard said. “They’ll know my name after the sport.”
They definitely do now. Pritchard, 24, has had his moments as a scorer off the bench in the course of 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 within the Eastern Conference finals. Pritchard reached double digits in scoring in three of the primary 4 games. In Game 4, Pritchard scored 14 points, 11 of them within the fourth quarter, extinguishing any hope of a Heat comeback.
Boston Coach Ime Udoka has used him sporadically, partially because Pritchard’s size makes him a straightforward goal on defense. In the ultimate three games of the Celtics’ series against the Heat, Pritchard played just 12 minutes combined and didn’t rating.
He also struggled against the Milwaukee Bucks within the Eastern Conference semifinals, but within the decisive Game 7, he chipped in 14 points after which delivered one other viral moment. Within the fourth quarter, Pritchard hit a 3-pointer that put the Celtics up 20. Pritchard turned to Boston’s bench and screamed, “That’s what I do!”
Damon Stoudamire, a Celtics assistant coach, knows well what it’s wish to be the smallest player on the court. His nickname during a 13-year N.B.A. profession was Mighty Mouse because he was under six feet tall.
“Those variety of moments that you simply catch on camera, no one really thinks about it,” he said of Pritchard’s 3-pointer against the Bucks. “But man, that’s quite a bit built up,” he said.
He added: “That’s just him showing emotion there for the moment because he’s finally gotten his opportunity. I mean, people forget: He really didn’t play the primary half of the season.”
The Celtics chosen Pritchard, who’s from West Linn, Ore., with the twenty sixth pick of the 2020 draft after his four-year college profession at Oregon, where he was a first team all-American and helped this system get to the Final 4 of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Incidentally, Pritchard was among the finest guards to return 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.
“After I entered the N.B.A., I used to be probably the most N.B.A. ready on the time to go in and play immediately,” Pritchard said.
He had a superb rookie 12 months, 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 was bumpy. In the primary half, Pritchard was once more buried on the depth chart. When he did play, he couldn’t hit shots. He appeared in 71 of 82 games this season. In the primary 49, Pritchard shot just 37.8 percent from the sphere and was playing only 12.3 minutes a game, down from his rookie 12 months.
Some nights, he wouldn’t play in any respect. He said it was “very frustrating.”
Stoudamire described it as “mentally taxing” on Pritchard.
“His whole life, he’s been a focus of most teams,” Stoudamire said. “Now, he can’t even get off the bench. He doesn’t really know why. As a staff, we tried to do our greatest to talk over with him. Like I told him, it really doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s really just the numbers.”
This led to some difficult conversations between Udoka, also an Oregon native, and Pritchard. The 2 also had a relationship dating back to Pritchard’s youth.
“I asked him at one point if he ever sees me playing here. Am I adequate to play?” Pritchard said. “I believed in myself. I used to be all the time adequate. But is that this the fitting fit? He just reassured me, and the trade deadline happened. After which the chance got here.”
Amongst a flurry of moves on 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 one of the best stretch of his profession, averaging 9.6 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting in 22 games. He was one among the higher 3-point shooters within the league in that period at 47.3 percent. He played well enough that within the playoffs, Udoka has at times trusted him to play crucial minutes in tight games, including against a talented Nets team in the primary round and now against Golden State within the finals.
If Pritchard is to succeed long run, he’ll need to seek out a option to overcome his defensive struggles. Particularly within 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 ground. The overwhelming majority of his shots are 3s. In 19 postseason games, he’s shooting 46.5 percent from the sphere and 37.7 percent from 3.
“Throughout these playoffs, his big games have all the time been games where we pulled away due to his momentum shots,” Stoudamire said.
His emergence — or re-emergence as a shot maker — isn’t surprising to Pritchard. As he might say: It’s, in any case, what he does.