For nearly three quarters Monday, the Celtics looked out of sorts and lethargic against the Thunder.
They were in danger of suffering their worst loss of the season so far and needed some sort of jolt to get them out of a perplexing rut.
Enter Payton Pritchard, who brought instant energy and spearheaded a pivotal 10-3 run that fueled the Celtics to a 126-122 win at TD Garden. On a night where it would have been easy for Boston to fold, and never match the Thunder’s energy, Pritchard refused to let that happen.
Pritchard drilled a 32-footer, stole the ball from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and raced the other way for a lefty layup as time expired in the third to slice the deficit to 96-89. He later helped set up a Derrick White steal to open the 4th, then nailed another 3 to cut it to 99-94.
The run spanned less than two minutes from late in the third to early in the final frame, but it was all the Celtics needed. He only played 14 minutes, but he made the most of them.
“Payton, I love that guy, how he just comes in and is ready to go,” Jaylen Brown said. “That’s tough to do in this league, not knowing if your name is going to be called. To come in and give us automatic energy, like he did.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who also turned to Pritchard early in the third, said he knows what he’s getting from him every time he enters the game. That instant energy shouldn’t be taken for granted, and it’s a skill as much as it is a mindset.
Pritchard, who averaged 19.2 minutes as a rookie and 14.1 last year, has seen that number dip to 10.6 this season – and that’s when he sees the floor.
With Malcolm Brogdon out, though, Pritchard has made the most of an increased opportunity. The Celtics know Pritchard can hoop. No one would ever question that. They simply have so much depth that he’s been out of the rotation more than he would like. Mazzulla finds himself in a classic “good problem to have” situation, but for a gym rat like Pritchard, not playing is not playing.
Perhaps this stretch without Brogdon will help set Pritchard up for future success. He scored 11 points and made several winning hustle plays against the Nuggets, finished a game-high plus-16 against the Pistons, then shifted the entire complexion of the game Monday night.
It’s not easy to play just 12 to 17 minutes a night and shape the action like that. He deserves plenty of credit for staying ready, embracing his role and hustling like a madman.
“Every single time he’s gotten his moment this year, he’s come in and made a big impact for us,” Marcus Smart said.
Marcus Smart on what shifted the energy for us tonight: “Payton Pritchard and Derrick White … They gave us the jolt we needed.”— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 15, 2022
Smart said he preaches the importance of staying professional and understanding there are 29 other teams watching. While Pritchard probably wants to stay in Boston, Smart reminds him that it’s a business and anything can happen. Maximizing every opportunity is imperative.
When Brogdon returns, Mazzulla should find a way to continue to get him playing time. Pritchard has earned it, and the Celtics are better when he’s in the rotation.