BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla didn’t have all of his usual options available as the third quarter dwindled down Friday night. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum had four fouls apiece. Still, the Celtics were in a fight against the Kings. Mazzulla needed to find a solution.
In a crucial moment, the Boston coach dusted off two players who sat for the entire first half. With the Celtics trailing by four points and 3:12 left in the third quarter, Mazzulla called on Payton Pritchard and Luke Kornet.
“Foul trouble obviously played a part in that, but at the same time just capitalizing on our depth,” Mazzulla said after a sudden turnaround produced a 122-104 Celtics win. “We talked about it from day one, we have a lot of different ways we can go. And credit to both Payton and Luke for what they do on a daily basis to stay ready, and credit to the rest of our team for accepting that. And I think it says a lot about where we can go with our team. And I just thought they brought a different rhythm to the game.”
As Brown put it, the Celtics “just needed some energy.” Late in a third quarter filled with whistles, they were missing their normal flow. Following his fourth foul, Smart sat on top of the scorer’s table for a moment, as if to allow his frustration to wash away. Around the same time, Grant Williams earned a technical foul for arguing an out-of-bounds call. After allowing a 40-point second quarter and struggling to score through most of the third, the Celtics were in trouble against a dangerous Kings team. Mazzulla left Tatum in the game with four fouls. The Celtics closed the third quarter on a 16-0 run, almost all of it coming with a bench unit of Pritchard, Kornet, Sam Hauser and Malcolm Brogdon surrounding Tatum.
The surge started with a missed 3-pointer by Domantas Sabonis. It ended with Tatum blowing a kiss to the crowd after banking home a long triple. In between, Pritchard and Kornet flipped the game over.
“Payton helped us win the game,” said Brown. “That little bit of energy that we got from him helped carry us over. That’s what we needed.”
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Tatum gave “a lot of credit” to both Kornet and Pritchard.
“Those guys didn’t play the first half, never truly know when they are going to play,” said Tatum. “But they’re true professionals, always stay ready. And they gave us the boost of energy that we needed. I think we might have been down four and ended the (quarter) up 10 because those guys came in and just changed the momentum of the game.”
Pritchard scored five quick points near the end of the third quarter before adding four more in the fourth. Kornet slammed home an alley-oop, drilled a floater, grabbed five rebounds and swatted away two shots. After they checked in, the Celtics scored 17 straight points, including the first three of the fourth quarter. By the time Kornet subbed out with 6:55 left, Boston had gone on a 30-4 run with him and Pritchard in the game.
“When Payton checked in, he brought the energy right away,” said Brown. “That’s exactly what we needed. There’s going to be games like this where it’s going to be flat a little bit, and you need somebody in that second unit to come in and be a spark. And Payton, it almost seems like it’s him every time. I’m proud to see him go out there and do what he does best.”
Pritchard hasn’t usually been in the rotation when the Celtics have a healthy backcourt, but he has stepped up regularly when given a chance. He scored in double figures three times during a five-game stretch when Smart and Brogdon missed time earlier this season. During that streak, Pritchard earned substantial praise from his teammates and coaches after turning around a game against the Thunder. Consistent play hasn’t resulted in a regular rotation spot for Pritchard yet, but he has been a luxury for the Celtics on nights when they need a jolt.
“When he got in the game, you felt that energy,” said Brown. “That’s all we needed. He came out and played hard. He made some big-time baskets, which I said before is really hard to do in this league. Just come off and be like a microwave like that. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in this league. Payton almost seems like he’s mastering it. I know Payton’s a good player and going to have a good career. But I think these moments where he’s being mature and being a microwave is going to help him down the line in his game.”
Pritchard has averaged 18 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes this season while shooting 46.8 percent from the field, including a stellar 44 percent on 3-point attempts. In the lineup to close the third quarter, the Celtics had three 40 percent 3-point shooters (Pritchard, Hauser and Brogdon) next to Tatum and the 7-foot-2 Kornet. The Kings either needed to send help off a knockdown shooter or a rim threat. They weren’t able to figure out the right way to defend that group.
At the other end of the court, Kornet helped limit a Kings offense that entered Friday ranked second in the league. Though Kornet has earned the primary backup center minutes behind Al Horford, the Celtics had been playing smaller over the last couple of games. Kornet didn’t play at all during Wednesday’s win against the Mavericks before the DNP during the first half against the Kings.
“That’s why you have a team,” said Tatum. “You substitute guys. Payton hasn’t played all night and he’s fresh. Comes in and picks the energy up. Luke gets a couple of blocks, now we’re out running in transition, we get a 3 and we feel better about ourselves. And, you know, the crowd starts feeding off that. The crowd, they know basketball, they can sense what’s going on. Just one score, one stop after another. And we just tried to run with it.”
The Celtics weren’t always sharp. They gave up 40 second-quarter points on mostly layups and dunks. They fell behind by six points late in the third. They appeared headed down the wrong street before Pritchard and Kornet grabbed the wheel. In a hurry, the Celtics turned a small deficit into a blowout victory.
Brown knows not every game will be a smooth one, but he appreciated how his team found itself in time to run away from Sacramento.
“On a night-to-night basis, it’s just a grind physically, mentally, just staying engaged,” Brown said. “We play a game every other night. Just being mentally prepared each and every night and just having that focus for the game. And that’s going to be our challenge. We’re going to have ups and downs, but our bottom has to be higher than everybody else’s. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard starting with me, starting with Jay, starting with all of us, to be honest with you. We’ve been playing together for a long time. We know how to win.”