Payton Pritchard breaks through as Celtics get first NBA Cup win

BOSTON — Everything looked a little different. The paint is green in Boston. The rest of the court is a familiar blend of tan wooden shades that make up the parquet floor. Yet Friday, the color scheme was inverted.

This is what the NBA Cup is all about. In promoting the new In-Season Tournament in which the Boston Celtics made their debut Friday night, Adam Silver has spent the past year lionizing tournaments like the FA Cup in England. It’s the competition that pits tiny local clubs from around the world against titans like Chelsea and Man City.

But there was something different to it, from the surprisingly reflective evergreen courts making it look like they were playing on top of a mirror image, to the classic feel of the new city edition jerseys. More importantly, the game delivered the FA Cup vibe as the Celtics bench blew this game open.

That tournament brings true football equity, the chance for anyone from anywhere to make a big play on the big stage. Maybe if the NBA made the grand prize for the cup a guaranteed play-in berth, we’d get the kind of middle-class competitive incentive that could differentiate this tournament from the regular season. On this night, the Celtics’ middle class made their mark.

Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser had maybe their best games of this young season, with the second unit finally coming through in a big way for a 121-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“They do it every night, but tonight they started balling,” Jrue Holiday said of the bench. “Knowing P, he can get to the basket and score whenever he wants to. But knowing when his 3-point shot is falling, he’s damn near unstoppable. Sam, he shoots it so high, I feel like it doesn’t touch anything when it goes through the net. So it’s always good to see them go off coming off the bench.”

And while it’s not clear if anyone feels like there is really something at stake with this tournament, there’s one player who needed a good night: Payton Pritchard. The newly paid backup guard entered the evening shooting 8-for-34 from the field and 3-for-20 from deep.

You don’t need to see the percentages to know that’s trash. He’s had some cold streaks in his career, but another brick might give him hypothermia.

If this was happening last year, Pritchard would be sweating his place in the rotation. Minutes were hard enough to come by that he made it clear publicly that he wanted out. But he didn’t get his wish, his roadblock got traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for Jrue Holiday, and now he has a role he can live with. More importantly, he has a coach telling him to take a deep breath and not worry about it.

“Joe (Mazzulla) came to me and he was like, ‘You’re going to continue to play,’” Pritchard said. “It’s like, you keep impacting winning in other areas and that’s all that matters.”

He needed the message. Pritchard is uber-confident. If he ran into a bear in the woods, he’d probably try to press it full court and force a turnover. But shooters shoot, and seeing that many misses starts to make everything feel out of whack.

“I think it started messing with me mentally a little bit,” Pritchard said. “But then I went back to what made me a great shooter in the first place. So I just dialed it back into that. It’s just kind of just a mental game. It starts to kind of affect you, start second-guessing shots. At the end of the day, you put in too much work. So I just believe in myself.”

The thing is that he pretty much has no idea what the outside world thinks. The guy just got a long-term deal, so suffice it to say that the internet is not thrilled with the results so far.

He claimed to already be his toughest critic, which is definitely not true if you’ve ever logged on to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. There’s always a hater out there ready to bury you. But he’s tuned it out.

“I mean, to be honest with you, I have been off social media and I haven’t been looking,” Pritchard said. “So I figured people are, like, coming at me. But it’s part of playing in Boston and that’s what I like about it. So I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else. But if I’m playing bad, I want to hear it, but I’ll get it back.”

The Celtics basically had one chance to lock in a quality backup point guard before the second apron takes away their taxpayer mid-level exception next summer. Unless JD Davison wins G League MVP, they don’t really have someone in the wings to grow into what Pritchard can do.

So when he can’t hit a shot anywhere on the floor, it’s concerning considering he’s a small guard who doesn’t exactly carve defenses up with his passing. But there’s a reason Mazzulla told him not to sweat his place in the rotation. Pritchard does so much more.

“He’s found a way to make a big impact the whole year, and to me, he changed the game for us tonight,” Mazzulla said. “And what we see is, like, it’s easy to look at the scoring of the bench and be like, ‘We’re not producing.’ But there’s so much other stuff that those guys do for us on a daily basis.”

Mazzulla has always said defense is your admission ticket to the floor. Offensive rebounding is really a defensive play, taking away a possession from the opponent to give your team another shot.

So when Pritchard isn’t raining 3s, he’s finding a way to set that up for others and then set that up again.

“It’s just leaving an impact on the game,” Pritchard said. “It’s always how shooting goes. I just went through a stretch where I just wasn’t making shots. I think that happens. That’s happened a couple times in my career through college and stuff. Shooting is like this [waves hand up and down] — it just comes and goes. I’m sure I’ll get it back.”

With just over four minutes left in the game and the blowout just about cemented, Pritchard was still scrambling everywhere off the ball to try to make an impact. He tried to cut to an open wing, only for Hauser to beat him to the spot and claim the open look. But the Celtics kept swinging the ball, ending up with a rare Luke Kornet post-up.

It was such a surprising sight that it would’ve been easy for everyone to stare as Kornet got into his hook shot. Then Pritchard saw the lane open up and sprinted into the paint, getting the easiest layup of his life on the Kornet dime.

The Celtics knew the Nets would line up extra small with Nic Claxton out, starting forward Dorian Finney-Smith at the five and playing their backup center Day’Ron Sharpe light minutes. Mazzulla continued to trust Kornet with a big role, giving him the backup big minutes over Oshae Brissett as Kornet had six offensive rebounds. He and Pritchard had more than the entire Nets team, which had eight.

The Celtics countered the Nets small size by keeping a 7-footer in the game all night, but it was Holiday’s 12 boards and Pritchard’s crashing the offensive glass that helped the Celtics seize control.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t go in there and get some extra possessions by crashing the boards,” Holiday said. “It’s also fun. It throws energy for the team. Home games it throws energy for the crowd getting those extra 3s up.”

Even though Pritchard had been on a rim-seeking streak, he put up seven 3s Friday night and hit only two. It’s not that much better, but it’s a start. He said you might miss 10 in a row, or you might hit 10 in a row. Shooting comes and goes. Offensive rebounding, passing of the paint, and just providing that fun with a second unit finding its way can show up every night.

“It’s like we’re just starting to jell more and more. Like, this is the first year really playing in the second unit together,” Pritchard said. “So it’s the start of the season, but I’m looking at it like we would rather be jelling towards the end of the year than the beginning. Like, it’s the beginning of the season. So we’re trying to just jell at the end.”

But like Mazzulla said, the identity of this second unit starts with Pritchard.

“Payton just brings a different energy to the game,” Jaylen Brown said. “He’ll pick up full court, he hits tough shots, he can hit shots from the parking lot if you let him, and he also is a great offensive rebounder. So him playing well and him being confident in himself is going to be good for us down the line.”

Until then, Pritchard will have to stay off his phone, stay in the gym and keep shooting. But, just in case he did want to fire off one more tweet to his haters, what would he say?

“Uhhhh, I dunno,” Pritchard said. “Keep hating.”

(Photo of Payton Pritchard: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

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