Payton Pritchard’s defensive energy and shooting could be a big key for the Celtics

SAN FRANCISCO — The knock on Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard is that he’s a poor defender because teams routinely attempt to exploit his size.

The truth is that he’s a willing and active defender, and getting targeted is just life in the NBA for any undersized guard.

But what Pritchard lacks in size he can sometimes make up for in fight. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, after Boston had rallied ahead of the Golden State with a furious 3-point barrage, the Warriors thought they had a favorable matchup with Pritchard isolated on Steph Curry.

Pritchard had other thoughts.

Shuffling up close a good 10 feet beyond the 3-point arc, Pritchard denied Curry’s initial attempt to drive, then lunged close to prevent a pull up. Curry gave up the ball and tried to use traffic near the top of the key to relocate into space. Pritchard sprinted through the construction zone to stick close and the Warriors moved the ball to the other side of the floor. Ultimately, Golden State settled for a late-clock, Draymond Green 3-pointer that back-rimmed — the exact sort of shot the Celtics would prefer.

Pritchard repeatedly injected much-needed energy into Boston’s small-ball, fourth-quarter lineup and made his presence felt on both ends. Once he was finished chasing Curry or Klay Thompson around the perimeter, he would sprint towards the basket to corral the sort of rebounds that Golden State too often won the foot race to over the first three quarters.

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His defensive energy, even in small doses while chasing Curry, really had an impact on Boston outlasting the Warriors. And it offered validation as Pritchard tries to prove his defensive doubters wrong.

“I really take the challenge,” said Pritchard. “Obviously, I hear all the things people say — saying that I’m not a great defender, which I disagree with. But I’m always trying to prove them wrong. And honestly, I think I take more of a challenge on the defensive end than the offense. Obviously, our team hangs our hat on the defensive end, so trying to be part of that.”

The Celtics account for three of the top five players in total minutes logged this postseason in Jayson Tatum (1st, 780 minutes); Jaylen Brown (2nd, 725) and Al Horford (5th, 657). Both Marcus Smart, despite missing a few games due to various illnesses, and Grant Williams sit in the top 12 in total playoff minutes.

Pritchard spent much of the end of the Miami series on ice, logging only 12 total minutes in the 10 days leading up to the Finals.

In Game 1, with the well-rested hosts looking as spent as the quick-turnaround Celtics, coach Ime Udoka deployed his Energizer Bunny in Pritchard. If Brown is Boston’s energy shifter then Pritchard is the energy amplifier.

Obviously, I hear all the things people say — saying that I’m not a great defender, which I disagree with. But I’m always trying to prove them wrong.

Payton Pritchard

Pritchard operated at an average speed of 4.22 miles per hour, per NBA tracking, tops among Boston’s regulars. Much of the 1.16 miles that Pritchard put on his Basketball Fitbit came chasing the Warriors perimeter scorers but his energy meter was decidedly higher than everyone else on the court throughout the fourth quarter.

At one point early in the frame, after a Golden State turnover, Pritchard shot out of the cannon so fast trying to get out in transition that teammate Tatum didn’t even see him streaking in behind him on a fast break. Tatum looked panicked when Brown’s outlet pass flew past him, only to hit a streaking Pritchard in stride for a layup.

Pritchard wasn’t perfect and NBA tracking had him allowing 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting overall. But what the Warriors generated trying to exploit Pritchard’s size was negated by the offensive floodgates that opened for Boston with Pritchard on the court.

The Celtics’ offense rating over Pritchard’s 15 minutes, 32 seconds of floor time was a jaw-dropping 165.5. He posted a net rating of plus-52.2. Pritchard finished with 8 points on 3-of-4 shooting with 6 rebounds and 2 assists.

Pritchard rebounded 31.3 percent of all Golden State’s misses during his short time. His total rebound rate of 23.1 percent was double of Boston’s next closest player (Robert Williams III, 12.5). Leave it to the 6-foot-1 guard to solve all of Boston’s rebounding woes.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling just to be here and compete at this level against such a dynamic franchise for the last couple years,” said Pritchard. “I just think we’re all looking forward to the challenge to go through the series and try to get it done.”

Pritchard, with only 258 total minutes this postseason, gives Boston a wildcard the team can trot out with the sole goal of living inside the jersey of Golden State shooters.

Is he a sustainable presence in this series? His 3-point shooting could be crucial when Boston needs floor spacing. The small-ball lineup featuring Pritchard and Derrick White was +14 in 15.5 minutes of floor time. Pritchard gives Boston another 3-point threat that Tatum can routinely spray the ball to if Golden State keeps throwing double teams his way.

The Warriors can hunt him at their own risk. Pritchard can negate his size trouble with his energy advantage. The Celtics don’t make their fourth-quarter charge in Game without his fresh legs.

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