BOSTON — For a third-string point guard, staying prepared without guaranteed playing time isn’t easy, while for others, staying ready for an unforeseen opportunity isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.
Before last week, Celtics backup point guard Payton Pritchard played for a combined 16 minutes in Boston’s first ten games of the regular season. Still, thirty minutes into the Celtics’ 126-122 win against the Thunder, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla needed a spark from his bench, and he wasn’t afraid to turn to his third-year guard Monday night.
Pritchard’s second-half performance triggered a comeback, which led to the Celtics wiping away a 16-point deficit in an impressive come-from-behind win. Trailing by 13, he made key defensive stops on one end of the floor, including stealing the ball in the backcourt before converting a buzzer-beating layup to end the third quarter and flourished on the other, such as scoring a 5-0 run of his own — which pulled the Celtics to within seven (96-89).
While trimming Oklahoma City’s fourth-quarter lead, Payton drained another 3-pointer, making it a two-possession game — which set the stage for point guard Marcus Smart and company to grapple the 6-8 Thunder into submission. Smart scored/assisted 17 of the Celtics’ final 19 points, including five from Derrick White in the final 1:02.
Finishing with a season-high 22 points, eight assists, and five rebounds, Marcus’ play on Monday was quickly his best of the young campaign. However, the longest-tenured Celtic didn’t take all the credit for Boston extending its winning streak to seven straight.
According to Marcus, two key players shifted the energy from the first three quarters into the final frame.
“Payton Pritchard and Derrick White,” Smart told reporters after the win. “The first unit was a little sluggish. We tried. We were giving everything we got, just couldn’t find it, and those two come in and gave us the jolt we needed.”
Jayson Tatum scored a team-high 27 points, Jaylen Brown netted 26 points, while White (16) and Pritchard combined for 26 of their own on 9-of-17 attempts off the bench.
“Play basketball,” Pritchard replied bluntly when asked what he was trying to do when he entered Monday’s game. “Just play hard, make shots when they’re there, and that’s it.”
At 24 years old, Pritchard’s been in the NBA long enough to know that playing time isn’t promised, nor is that type of decision in his hands, which Payton repeatedly keeps in mind daily.
“I’m just going to stay professional. Show up daily, work, and control what I can,” Pritchard said. “That’s all I can do.”
Celtics reserve Malcolm Brogdon, who missed his third consecutive game due to tightness in his right hamstring, is still considered day-to-day. Averaging 8.6 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting at a 55.5% clip, Pritchard’s been the primary beneficiary of seeing an uptick in playing time in Brogdon’s absence.
Malcolm will join his teammates for the upcoming three-game road trip, which kicks off against the Hawks in Atlanta on Wednesday night. Either way, Smart knows Brogdon’s status for Wednesday will not impact how prepared Pritchard will be for his next opportunity, as Monday’s spark against Oklahoma City is, so far, the best example we’ve seen thus far.
“It speaks about the professional that he is when he gets his moment,” Smart said. “Every single time he has gotten his moment this year, he’s come in and made a big impact for us. That right there goes to him as a player, as a professional, as his character; he doesn’t let the circumstances that he’s in affect him. And that’s what it’s all about because on any given night, you never know, it might be your turn, so you just have to be ready, and I’m constantly telling him that.”