National Basketball Association
Payton Pritchard: NBA champion and uncontested king of the half-court heave
National Basketball Association

Payton Pritchard: NBA champion and uncontested king of the half-court heave

Updated Jun. 18, 2024 9:17 a.m. ET

BOSTON — Luka Dončić bullied his way into the paint, past Jayson Tatum and to the rim. With four seconds left in the first half of Game 5, he dropped in a floater. A foul was called on Tatum, too, sending Dončić to the foul line. 

A made free throw would cut the Boston Celtics' lead to 17 — substantial, but not insurmountable. And it would send the Mavericks into the locker room on a high note. Which is exactly what Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla wanted to prevent. And so, before the free throw, he called out for Payton Pritchard to enter the game. Pritchard had yet to play, but he'd already buried one back-breaking buzzer-beater in Game 2. Mazzulla was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice. 

Dončić missed. Celtics center Al Horford grabbed the rebound and immediately spotted Pritchard to his left. 

"Of course," he'd say later, when asked by FOX Sports if his plan all along was to find Pritchard. "No question about it.


Pritchard took one long dribble, hopped into a stop just beyond half court and lofted the ball high into the air. The buzzer sounded as the ball fell through the net. 

The sold-out crowd inside TD Garden erupted. Less than one week after Mazzulla, following the Celtics' game 2 victory, had singled out Pritchard in the Celtics' locker room during his postgame speech to his players for the play of the game and said "Thank you for taking that shot," Pritchard had done it again. 

Jayson Tatum sprinted over to Pritchard, and, while screaming, lept into his chest. Other Celtics players began cackling like children."Unreal. Like just comes in the game and drains one from halfcourt," Jaylen Brown would say later. "That dude, he's a f---ing legend, man. Shout out to Payton Pritchard."

Across the floor, the Mavericks' bench was full of slumped shoulders. The lead was back to 21. There were 24 minutes remaining, but the Celtics could see the game was theirs.

"He did that, and you take a glance at the other team," Horford said, "and it's one of those that breaks your spirit, and then it just kind of fueled us."

[Related: Boston Celtics win record-setting 18th NBA title with 106-88 victory over the Dallas Mavericks]

Pritchard only played 1 minute and 23 seconds in Game 5. He played just 62 minutes in total in the entire finals. Yet listening to Mazzulla and Celtics players talk about Pritchard after their title-clinching, 106-88 win, you would have thought it was him and not Brown who won Finals MVP.  

"Payton is one of the best competitors and one of my favorite people in the world," Mazzulla said after the game, adding: "He won us moments. You know, as the playoffs go on, obviously some patterns change and things change, but those guys have to win moments of games for you, and Payton did that twice for us. That is just as important as any other plays that happened throughout the series and in the playoffs alone."

Last year, in the lead up to the trade deadline, Pritchard told the Celtics that he wanted a trade. In his third season with the team, after being drafted 28th overall in 2020, he'd grown frustrated with his role — or lack thereof.

"I wanted to be able to play and be able to play every game. And sweat out there. And really feel like I'm contributing," he told reporters earlier this year. He averaged just over 13 minutes per game.

The Celtics, however, declined to deal Pritchard. They believed in his talent. More than that, they loved his spirit. This year his minutes rose to 22.3 per game — and Celtics outscored their opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. He played hard, made shots (38.5% from deep) and locked down opposing guards. And while his minutes dwindled in the playoffs, he seemed to reward the Celtics every time he was put into a game. Even if just for a few seconds.

As for the heaves, Pritchard insists he doesn't practice them. What separates him, though, and sums up his approach, is his willingness to launch them. Just twelve minutes before he drilled his shot, the Mavericks' Dante Exum declined to even attempt one before the buzzer at the end of the first quarter.

"You see guys around the league pass up on that shot or fake like they want to take it, so that their numbers don't get messed up," Mazzulla said last week. "He takes pride in taking that, and that's winning basketball."

Pritchard now owns two heave-related finals records. Not only was his Game 5 buzzer-beat — from just outside 50 feet — the longest finals field goal since the league began tracking such things in 1998. It also made Pritchard the first player over that timespan to hit two buzzer-beating shots from outside of 30 feet in a single Finals. The buzzer-beater was, incredibly, his third of the postseason. 

"I believed my teammates were gonna find me," he told FOX Sports after the game, his clothes reeking of champagne and cigars. There were more questions to ask, but Pritchard was done. A group of those teammates were waiting for him in a hallway, ready to celebrate.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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Payton Pritchard
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