Canzano: Payton Pritchard is doing what he's always done -- winning
Celtics guard shines in playoffs.
WEST LINN, Ore. — Payton Pritchard’s alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. — every single day — all through high school. The guard would wake, dress, and then pick up a special basketball he owned.
The ball was weighted.
Its exterior was coarse, like low-grit sandpaper.
Pritchard would dribble for an hour, running through an exhausting progression of ball-handling drills. Sometimes, his hands bled. In fact, his freshman year, the guard arrived at practice one day at West Linn High with athletic tape wrapped around his palms.
Erik Viuhkola, his coach, said: “What’s with the tape?”
Pritchard answered: “Been dribbling.”
Same hands that raised four fingers by the end of his senior season — one for each state high school championship he won. Same hands that led the Pac-12 Conference in scoring and assists in his final season at the University of Oregon. Same hands that are now on the court in the Eastern Conference Finals, where Pritchard has emerged as a factor.
Pritchard played 23 minutes on Thursday night. He scored 10 points and his plus/minus was ridiculous (+39). The Celtics won Game 2, evening the series with the Heat, 1-1. But the buzz after the game was about the trash talk Pritchard offered while on the court.
With Boston pulling away in the middle of the second quarter, Pritchard caught the ball on the right side of the key. Miami’s Tyler Herro was guarding him. The average height of an NBA player this season is 6-foot-6.
Herro is 6-foot-5.
Pritchard is four inches shorter, listed at 6-1.
I studied the sequence carefully. He put the ball on the floor, dribbled exactly eight times, gliding right-to-left across the key. Pritchard crossed over twice, including once between his legs. Seven of the dribbles came with his left hand. Mid-sequence, he used his body to momentarily shield Herro, turning his back and hesitating for a beat, as if he were going to change direction and go right.
Herro took a half-step back.
He crossed over, beating his defender to the left. Before Herro could close the gap, the kid who some insisted was too small to play in the NBA, rose in the air and swished a seven-foot jumper over the scrambling Herro.
As Pritchard raced by the Miami bench, he did a curious thing. He made a “too small” gesture. It was wicked trash talk, offered by the smallest guy on the court.
Last week, Pritchard screamed “That’s what I do!!” when he hit a big three-point basket against the Milwaukee Bucks. One of the Celtics’ beat reporters — Dan Greenberg — noted on Twitter on Thursday night, “Payton Pritchard is an elite sh*t talker.”
Jim Thornby, the Pac-12’s strategic sports communication manager, saw the tweet and added, “Pac-12 fans have known this for a long time.”
Nobody could ever forget Pritchard hitting a ridiculous 26-foot dagger in overtime at Washington his senior season. The Ducks won the game and Pritchard paraded around the court. He finished his college career, a perfect 4-0 in Seattle, and shouted, “This is my city! My city! My city! I own this city!”
In the NBA, Pritchard is just doing what we’ve always seen him do. He’s playing for a winner, contributing significant minutes, and doing a little fun trash talking. Gone are the pre-draft doubters. They’ve long ago deleted their tweets and stopped talking. Forgive them, they’re naive. They discounted Pritchard because he was seemingly “too short” and “not athletic enough” to create his own shot.
The rest of us smiled.
In the run-up to the NBA Draft, I talked with two NBA insiders about Pritchard’s future. One of them was a long-time scout working for a Western Conference team. He traveled to Eugene to watch Dana Altman’s younger, gifted underclassmen but left UO thinking about a senior, Pritchard.
The scout called me as he drove to the airport and said: “Pritchard is a much better player than I anticipated.”
An Eastern Conference General Manager, who followed Pritchard’s growth from high school, told me he wouldn’t bet against the guard having a lengthy NBA career.
Said the GM: “He has too much heart, drive and toughness to fail.”
I’ve written about Pritchard’s bleeding hands before. They’re an effective metaphor to demonstrate how tough-minded and dedicated he was as a kid. But so are the tales of him showing up at the gym at 6 a.m. the day after his high school seasons ended. And so are the stories from his parents’ neighbors in West Linn, who say they got used to looking out their windows and seeing Pritchard sprinting up the neighborhood hills while dribbling a basketball in the summers.
Pritchard is 24 now. He’s giving the Celtics precious minutes and you can tell the coaching staff knows what they have. He’s surrounded by higher-profile players. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart, among them. But the rest of us know what’s happening here — Pritchard is shining.
The “Too short” gesture?
That was just plain funny. Pritchard has a wicked-good sense of humor. But today I’m left thinking about the other bit of trash talk he offered in the playoffs.
He screamed: “This is what I do!!”
It’s not really talk at all.
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