Payton Pritchard looks back on second NBA season, finals appearance
Payton Pritchard was in the thick of it.
Just two weeks ago, Pritchard — a West Linn High School graduate now in his second year as a guard with the Boston Celtics — was battling the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. Pritchard, a 6-foot-1, 24-year-old point guard, was matched up against some the league's best players, among them NBA legend Steph Curry.
While the Celtics, making their first finals appearance since 2010, fell short in the finals — they lost to the Warriors 4-2 — Pritchard had nothing but appreciation for his team's accomplishments in 2021-22. He said as much as he helped lead the annual Payton Pritchard Basketball Camp at West Linn High School on Tuesday, June 28.
"It was an unbelievable season," he said. "I think we set a standard for ourselves and what we want to reach, and that's to come home with a championship."
While reaching the finals was always the Celtics' goal, and while Pritchard always believed in his team's ability, there were definitely some speed bumps along the way. Indeed, after blowing a 24-point lead and losing to the New York Knicks on Jan. 6, Boston's record fell to 18-21 overall and the Celtics dropped to 11th in the Eastern Conference standings — with only the top 10 teams from the Eastern Conference eligible for the playoffs.
Pritchard had his own challenges in 2021-22, too, getting only scarce playing time in the team's first 60 games before — like the team as a whole — taking off down the stretch.
"There's always gonna be frustration there," he said. "I think, as a competitor, you're sometimes gonna be unhappy with things, but I looked at it as a learning opportunity. In the beginning of the season not playing, I (thought I) could get better during that time. And then, when my opportunity came, I tried to make the most of it and grow from it."
Like Pritchard, Boston was a different and better team over the season's final five months, going 31-10 in the remainder of the regular season to finish 51-31, win the Atlantic Division and place second in the Eastern Conference.
"We always thought that we were talented enough," Pritchard said. "But to reach that level, you kind of have to go through it. We started off the season with a lot of players in different positions and we had a lot of different players."
The Celtics, after that early low, won seven of their next 10 games to stem the tide. Then, after a loss to Atlanta on Jan. 28, Boston strung together six straight wins leading up to the NBA trade deadline, extended that run to nine in a row on Feb. 15 and just kept rolling from there.
After the trade deadline — which saw Boston deal away guards Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson — Pritchard began to get more playing time and put together one of the best stretches of his young career. After the all-star break, Pritchard scored 9.6 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting in 22 games, including 47% shooting from 3-point range.
"(The trade deadline) opened up opportunities for a couple of us and our team really bonded and came together and made a run," Pritchard said. "We went on a little run and won like (six) games in a row. And then after the trade deadline, we won another (three). So we won nine in a row, and after that, we just kind of like went off."
Pritchard and the Celtics kept their foot on the accelerator in the playoffs, too, sweeping past the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, ousting the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukie Bucks in seven games in the conference semifinals, then taking seven more games to drop the Miami Heat in the conference finals.
Among Pritchard's playoff highlights were: In game seven of the conference semis against Milwaukee, Pritchard scored 14 points, including a key 3-pointer that extended the Celtics' lead to 20; and against Miami in the conference finals, Pritchard reached double digits in three of the series' first four games, getting 14 points — 11 of them in the fourth quarter — in the Celtics' game-four victory.
The Celtics started well in the finals, too, winning two of the first three games against the Warriors before Golden State rallied to win the final three and the NBA title. Pritchard's best moment there ocurred in Game 1 when he came through with five points and four rebounds in eight minutes; during those eight minutes, the Celtics outscored Golden State by 18 points.
"In the second half (of the season), I started playing way more and we picked it up," Pritchard said. "Then (we) went to the playoffs and I had a lot of big games. But I think next year I'm looking forward to having a really breakthrough year."
For the season, Pritchard averaged 6.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and two assists in just more than 14 minutes per game. Overall, his numbers were down slightly from his rookie season when the Celtics went 36-36 and lost to the Nets in the first playoff round.
"For me, (the key to 2022-23 is) just coming in in the best shape possible and getting stronger," he said. "I think I can really … score and play make at that level.
"It's just about getting better and having a middle game, a floater, different things like that, like Curry — he's really good at it. But my shooting ability should help the Celtics space the floor and make plays off those guys."
Now, with the 2022 playoffs slowly receding into the rearview mirror, Pritchard has finally had a moment to relax, return home to West Linn and give back to the community that first saw him grow into a basketball star.
In this case, he used that time to lead the first of two sessions of his eponymous basketball camp for players ages 8-17 at West Linn High School. The second session is set for July 11-13.
"It means a lot. Obviously, this is home to me so just to come back and give back to the community of West Linn — this is huge for me," said. "Just to let them have the platform to come out here and play, compete and have fun and learn about things. I remember coming to camps when I was younger so I just wanted to give back."
In addition to helping at the camp and trying to be approachable — "I try to mess around with (the campers) because I don't want them to feel like they can't (talk to me) because I'm like a big brother to them. I grew up the same way as they did," he said — Pritchard is also trying to share some of his fabled work ethic.
"That's a part that's fun about being a professional — this is my only focus so I just get to work on my game every day and challenge myself to get better," Pritchard added. "Hard work gets you a lot of places."
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