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A gratifying finale to an up-and-down regular season for Payton Pritchard

“When I get opportunities like this, I try to show it.”

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics
Payton Pritchard drives past Trent Forrest in the second half of Boston’s 120-114 win Sunday at TD Garden.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Moments removed from his scintillating triple-double Sunday, Payton Pritchard’s teammates gave him a game ball to commemorate the occasion.

The Celtics guard appreciated the gesture but said he’s “not one to keep that.” Instead, he passed it along to assistant coach Aaron Miles – someone who’s stayed with him throughout what Pritchard acknowledged has been an “up-and-down year.”

Pritchard exploded for 30 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in the Celtics’ 120-114 win over the Hawks, joining Larry Bird and John Havlicek as the only players in franchise history to hit those marks.

He said he’s “honored” to be a part of such an exclusive group, yet he was primarily focused on “showing the world” what he’s capable of and getting a win in these two games.

Afterward, he was more so pensive than he was giddy. Truthfully, this is what he expects from himself every night.

In a regular season in which he averaged 5.1 points in 12.7 minutes in 47 games (all career-lows) – and has openly expressed a desire for a bigger role –staying patient hasn’t been easy for a certified hoops junkie.

“Every NBA player goes through it,” Pritchard said Sunday. “I think it’s through those down parts how you approach it. A lot of it is frustrating. I’ve had a lot of frustrating times, but I always went back to the work and finding little areas to always keep getting better. When I get opportunities like this, I try to show it.”

He did just that, controlling the entire game in a variety of ways with a distinct flair and panache that few others can provide. Pritchard buried 9-of-16 3-pointers and set his teammates up with pinpoint passes early and often.

After playing two, nine, 16 and nine minutes in the previous four games, he averaged 26 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists on 19-of-35 shooting in the past two games in an expanded role.

Absolutely no one is questioning Pritchard’s ability to play. He’s an excellent shooter and playmaker and brings tremendous energy whenever he’s on the floor. The Celtics are simply too deep at guard to get him heavy minutes on a nightly basis.

In a perfect world, they’d find 10 to 15 minutes for him every playoff game, but doing so will be easier said than done. Regardless of how the next few weeks and the offseason unfold, this was a necessary and gratifying end to the regular season for a player who needed a pick-me-up.

“A lot of people know, it’s been an up and down year, emotionally and physically now,” Pritchard said.

Whether he shines in the playoffs or not, and whether the Celtics bring him back next year or not, this was one final regular-season run to show every team in the NBA – including Boston – that he more than belongs.

To those who don't watch the Celtics closely, his performance Sunday might have seemed like an outlier. It was statistically speaking, but it wasn't at all surprising based on who he is and what he brings each night.

In addition to the lack of playing time, he’s also dealt with plantar fasciitis and a bone bruise on his heel that caused him pain whenever he stepped. Balancing that setback with everything else couldn't have been easy, but Pritchard did his best to stay patient and trust his work.

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla has taken notice, crediting him for “always handling it the right way.”

“He has a competitiveness, a professionalism and a work ethic about him that you always trust no matter when he goes in, he’s going to be ready to play,” Mazzulla said. “I’m really happy for him, and I have the utmost respect for him.”

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