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Pritchard the bench playmaker

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The rookie provided the Celtics with a steady hand off the bench.

Denver Nuggets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Against Detroit and Washington, the Celtics’ ball movement was on the side of a milk carton. One thing became abundantly clear - the Celtics can’t sustain winning basketball when operating in such a heavy isolation system.

We had a taste of said ball movement against Toronto, which left us hungry for more. Then, following two heartbreaking defeats, the Celtics served us another portion of their delectable passing against the Denver Nuggets.

Everything delicious has its drawbacks; it’s unhealthy or too expensive, or you have to finish your dinner first. It’s the same with ball movement. You can’t just have facilitators in your starting lineup. Instead, you need to be confident you have someone capable of stepping up off the bench and continuing to spray passes around while working for the best look possible. Your stars can’t be on the floor for every single minute.

Enter Payton Pritchard, the sous chef of playmaking. The young rookie ended the game with seven assists off the bench, leading all non-starters for the game.

While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a passing masterclass by Pritchard - the rookie notched a career-high eight dimes against Toronto at the beginning of January - it’s clear that he’s feeling looser with every passing game since his knee injury. That comfort was on display early against Denver, as Pritchard tore their defense open twice in short succession with breathtaking passes.

Let’s be fair here; the jaw-dropping segment of this play isn’t the lob pass, but rather the emphatic dunk that Robert Williams rains down like hellfire. However, we should note that without the hard push in transition and pinpoint lob pass from Pritchard, Williams wouldn’t have been able to make the highlight reel.

What’s noteworthy here is, Pritchard’s already commanding both pick-and-roll defenders’ attention, which isn’t something anyone envisioned heading into the season and should be celebrated accordingly.

Here’s another beautiful dime from Prichard. Bringing the ball up the floor, Pritchard notices RJ Hampton overhelping on Aaron Nesmith, leaving Jaylen Brown on an island around the low block. A sweet one-handed bullet finds Brown in the blink of an eye for the easy deuce.

Following those two beauties, Pritchard’s assists resided in the realm of average decision-making for the remainder of the game. Average is perfectly fine, by the way. You don’t need to be flashy to be effective. Of Boston’s whopping 20 turnovers on the night, Payton was only responsible for one (and it wasn’t for stepping out of bounds).

Interestingly, in this performance against the Nuggets, Pritchard impacted the game despite a modest usage rate of 16.7%, which ranks in the 30th percentile of guards who suited up yesterday. The Oregon native assisted on 36.8% of the team’s made shots while on the floor and looked every bit the veteran presence in what was only his 21st NBA game. The force is strong with this one.

A common misconception about playmaking is that it has everything to do with passing and absolutely nothing to do with scoring, yet while the two aspects are not mutually exclusive, finding your own shot does factor into a player’s overall ability as a playmaker.

Luckily, Pritchard isn’t afraid to mix it up in the tall trees or show his deadeye precision from deep. The shot attempts per zone back this theory up, too. This season, Pritchard has taken 22 shots at the rim, 31 from mid-range, and 71 from deep, operating with a 60.9 eFG%. While those attempts are all limited sample sizes, it does illustrate the comfort of Boston’s latest draft success across all areas of the offensive floor.

Here’s a great example. Pritchard sees a lane created by Denver’s defensive rotation and attacks it instantly, using a crossover to create enough space to get his man on his hip before driving into the defense’s teeth and finishing the and-1 play.

That type of play also falls under a playmakers remit: there wasn’t an open pass, which would have resulted in a better shot, so Pritchard used his scoring prowess to ensure the play would result in either a score or a shooting foul - it ended in both.

If Boston is going to continue utilizing their ball movement to further expand their offense. In that case, having players capable of guiding the ship coming off the bench is a fundamental prerequisite. Outside of Pritchard, the team is light on guards who can both facilitate and score across all three levels, making him a solid choice for being part of the team’s bench rotation as we approach the midpoint of the season.

If Pritchard continues to perform at this level and finds ways to impact the game beyond the scoresheet, then he may find himself playing meaningful playoff minutes come the playoffs.