Payton Pritchard finds a groove during Boston’s best stretch of the season

The Oregon Ducks of Payton Pritchard may not have made the NCAA tournament — they face the Texas A&M Aegies in the second round of the NIT today, for what they’re worth — but he looks no less comfortable in the opening weekend of said tournament. There’s only one difference: In March, he plays for the Boston Celtics.

His 14-point streak, five rebounds, and eight assists against the Kings was arguably the best effort of the season, save for a few mid-February games where the Celtics struggled. He played more than 20 minutes for only the ninth time this season, and only the third time since December 29. Needless to say, Pritchard made the most of his time.

The sophomore played what was practically a perfect game: 100 percent of three (four for four), 100 percent of the field (five for five), no turns, and no mistakes. It was a whopping plus 31 for the game, only trailing Jayson Tatum (plus 40) in plus/minus. The Celtics were able to rely more on Pritchard due to the fact that, well, he was reliable, especially as a shooter. Lately, he’s letting her fly with confidence and composure. Last night, he looked like a guy who doesn’t like that his minutes have gone from 19 per game last season to 13 per game this season, and desperately wants those six minutes of time off.

“People want to look at the stats and the numbers, but at the beginning of the year I play sometimes at the end of matches and in the different minutes,” Pritchard said after the win. “I just came in, be ready, stop shots, play a solid defense, play and be a winning player. For me, once that trade deadline hit, that was my mindset to go in and compete and gain more confidence from the coaching staff.”

He did just that, especially when he was a shooter. Pritchard is now shooting 38 percent from depth this season and 44.7 percent since the All-Star break (1.9 from 4.3 attempts per game). Pritchard is no longer treated as a player on the bench for perhaps minutes, but he is a reliable option late in close matches when Celtics stars are being chased. While Derek White has struggled somewhat offensively since arriving from San Antonio on the trade deadline, shooting just 22 percent of Celtic’s three, Pritchard has proven he can fit in and around Boston’s start when necessary. His presence from behind the arch creates distant nightmares to oppose the defenses; It is a dream for his team.

“I mean, it’s important to have a guy who can leave space on the floor and take those shots down,” Tatum said of the Pritchard postgame. “It makes us more dynamic, and it builds confidence. There is nothing better than seeing the ball go through the net, especially when shooting. Very happy for him, and [hope he] Keep it going.”

“It’s huge,” Im Odoka added of Pritchard’s shooting. “Obviously one of our best shooters. The trick for him was to learn to play the ball more and understand that we had Marcus, Derek, Jason and Jaylen who could handle and create the shots for him. Sometimes he’s a great checker and Bobber and he mixes it together and we bring some small matches in. So, he did a great job not only handling it but playing the ball.”

Here’s what you see in the video above: Pritchard does a great job of reading the defense and finding his points accordingly. His colleagues make shots of him as he creates space on his own. He’s undetected, but he slips behind the defense, waiting on the wings for his teammate to throw it in front of him, or in the corners to skip passes. When the defense collapses on the man in the paint – or, say, on a Tatum or Brown car – Pritchard tends to be an open Celtic. Being one of the best shooters on the team, it’s a good bet that he’ll be on the receiving end of an inside-out pass.

“He’s one of our best shooters, guys really look up to him,” Odoka said. “You can feel it, you can see it, they are looking for him in transition. So, he is adding another layer to our squad. But the confidence part has always been there for him. It is just a matter of chance.”

To this point, Pritchard added, “My shot has always been around. Anyone in practice knows that often with shooting, it takes time to get things back flowing.”

Against the Kings, he wasn’t just in the flow of things as a shooter – his eight assists were the highest of the season. With his passing, he proved that his shot is not just a matter of actors but making his play for others as well.

Now, sure, it pays to have a hot teammate like Jason Tatum in his back pocket, ready to score at a moment’s notice. But the star’s task becomes much easier when he is fed by a smart player like Pritchard who has proven his ability. His eyes are constantly active, looking for players left in the corners, and he loves to fill himself. He’s so adept at hitting the big pieces, and at making deliverables that he knows will create Celtic with something right in their bag.

“At the end of the day, I’m a basketball player,” Pritchard said. “You can put me anywhere in the court, and I’ll try to achieve something.”

He backed up his words in a big way last night. His teammates and coaches see it. And soon you’ll do the league, too.

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