How Payton Pritchard Carved Out a Vital Role for Joe Mazzulla, Celtics

Payton Pritchard delivered the best series of his playoff career, earning Joe Mazzulla's trust as the fourth-year pro enters his third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals series
Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three
Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three / Jason Miller/GettyImages

For years, Boston Celtics' back-up point guard Payton Pritchard had to wait his turn.

From the start, the 6-foot-1 guard Boston selected with the 26th pick in 2020's NBA Draft had his work cut out for himself. Latching onto a title-contending team on the cusp of entering its perceived championship window at the time, Payton played behind starter Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jeff Teague, a set of established veterans that snatched a bulk of the backcourt's minutes while the Oregon product found his footing. Then came additional hurdles that set in place.

When a path to increased playing time appeared to open up for Pritchard in light of the Celtics trading Walker and Teague, a new head coach, Ime Udoka, took over, and Payton's minutes teetered between meaningful spurts in the second and third quarters, and finishing out lopsided games — another roadblock for the young guard on the tail end of his rookie deal. Last year, the league's sixth Man of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon, anchored the bench, thus taking on starters' minutes as head coach Joe Mazzulla utilized Smart and Derrick White into his interchangeable lineups that often left Payton at the end of the bench. Now, in many ways, Brogdon's job belongs to Pritchard.

With Al Horford starting in place of Kristaps Porzingis (right calf), as Porzingis will remain sidelined throughout the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, Payto ha's stepped up and is leading Mazzulla's second unit. He's elevated his defense, skill set as a distributor, and an efficient all-around scorer as Payton's evolved into one of Mazzulla's go-to guys off the bench.

And as Boston prepares for the next round of the playoffs, Pritchard points to the gloomy days of riding the bench throughout the Celtics' deep playoff run last season as a catalyst to becoming the player he is today.

"When you’re in the playoffs you’re watching so many great players play, and performances during these games are unbelievable. So, as frustrating as it might be not to play, it’s motivating,” Pritchard said after Celtics practice on Sunday. “I remember being a kid growing up, and you watch an NBA game, you watch a player, you’re like, ‘wow,’ and my first instinct was I want to go to the gym."

Payton Pritchard

That same feeling overcame Payton as a pro when Pritchard continued working throughout the Celtics' postseason run despite not receiving consistent playing time.

"Last year, when I was watching these games, and I wasn’t playing, it hurt, but it also motivated me to come in the next day, put in my work, and prepare for my future, not knowing what my future was going to be,” Pritchard added. “But, I had big dreams and goals ahead. So, that motivated me to keep working."

Payton Pritchard

In a less-crowded backcourt led by a pair of defensive stalwarts in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, Pritchard's carved out a leading role for the reserves, providing offensive stability as the team's secondary playmaker with a knack for scoring buckets, albeit from the perimeter or beating guys off the dribble. After turning in the best regular-season numbers of his career — 7.8 points, 2.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game, career-bests in each statistical category — Pritchard had his best series yet in the Eastern Conference semis, turning in 11.2 points per game on 52.6% shooting from the floor, including 50% from behind the 3-point arc against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I’m glad to be a part of a lot of winning cultures, and hopefully, I bring a little bit of that winning stuff,” Pritchard said. “For me, in my journey, the work is undefeated. So, I feel like that’s what brings us all to be able to try to raise a banner: the work we put in on the daily, and never being broken from the journey.”

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