It was one of the most amusing moments of the NBA 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 NBA 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 NBA 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 NBA 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.
Boston Coach Ime Udoka has used him sporadically, in part because Pritchard’s size makes him an easy target on defense. In the final three games of the Celtics’ series against the Heat, Pritchard played just 12 minutes combined and didn’t score.
He also struggled against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but in the decisive Game 7, he chipped in 14 points and then delivered another viral moment. In 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 like to be the smallest player on the court. His nickname during a 13-year NBA career was Mighty Mouse because he was under six feet tall.
“Those type of moments that you catch on camera, nobody really thinks about it,” he said of Pritchard’s 3-pointer against the Bucks. “But man, that’s a lot 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 first half of the season.”
The Celtics selected Pritchard, who is from West Linn, Ore., with the 26th pick of the 2020 draft after his four-year college career at Oregon, where he was a first team all-American and helped the program get to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
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.
“When I entered the NBA, I was the most NBA ready at the time to go in and play right away,” Pritchard said.
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 was bumpy. In the first half, Pritchard was once again 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 first 49, Pritchard shot just 37.8 percent from the field and was playing only 12.3 minutes a game, down from his rookie year.
Some nights, he wouldn’t play at all. He said it was “very frustrating.”
Stoudamire described it as “mentally taxing” on Pritchard.
“His whole life, he’s been a focal point 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 best to talk to him. Like I told him, he 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 two 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 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 best 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.