DETROIT — When the Celtics traded Dennis Schröder to the Rockets earlier this month, it left a hole at backup point guard and an opportunity for Payton Pritchard.
It’s been a difficult second season for Pritchard, who lost his role and some minutes under new coach Ime Udoka. And when he did play, he wasn’t productive.
That has changed of late, with Pritchard seizing backup point guard minutes and sinking open 3-pointers, making him even more useful. On Saturday afternoon at Little Caesars Arena, with his teammates struggling offensively, Pritchard sparked a fourth-quarter run with key buckets, including a pivotal 3-pointer with 3:52 left as the Celtics beat the pesky Pistons, 113-104.
Pritchard finished with 19 points, his most since Dec. 27, in 27 minutes to help the Celtics to their 11th win in 12 games.
The Pistons led, 88-85, with 8:05 left before Pritchard tied the game with a 3-pointer, sparking a 15-2 game-deciding run. The Celtics avenged their Feb. 16 loss to the Pistons in Boston, their lone blemish since Jan. 28.
Confidence has never been an issue with Pritchard. But he began the season 7 for 30 from the 3-point line and his minutes decreased. While he’s been better since December, finding playing time was difficult with Schröder present.
The fact that president of basketball operations Brad Stevens hasn’t added another backup point guard is perhaps an encouraging sign for Pritchard, who had scored just 18 points since the trade deadline before Saturday’s outburst.
“It’s a good feeling to get a win and contribute like that,” he said. “For me, the role I’m in and some of the guys coming off the bench, you’ve got to find different ways to affect the game. It’s not always going to be with scoring. For me, it just finding those little ways I can contribute.”
Pritchard had a promising rookie season under Stevens, but he didn’t make the same impression under Udoka. Much of Pritchard’s success depends on whether he can hit 3-pointers, because with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the floor, he’s going to be left open.
On Saturday, Pritchard knocked down those open shots.
“For me, this whole year has been trying not to get down,” he said. “It’s frustrating, to stay with your work. I looked at it as a way I could get better, off days, game days, just keep working hard and your moment will eventually come.”
Udoka said he’s always maintained confidence in Pritchard.
“Obviously he hasn’t gotten the opportunity as much earlier in the year with Dennis, and now Dennis being gone it opens up some stuff for him,” Udoka said. “Derrick [White] wasn’t his best tonight so [Pritchard] got more of a run there. We stuck with him. He was playing well, guarding well, making shots, and being aggressive. As I mentioned before, it was nothing he ever did during the season, and we are confident in him. He had a great game, a huge impact.”
Brown scored 27 points and Tatum added 26 on Saturday, but they were a combined 18 for 45 from the field, and the Celtics’ offense was sluggish until the final eight minutes. The Celtics were 12 for 19 in the fourth quarter with 11 assists.
And unlike the Feb. 16 game in Boston, the Celtics were able to hold on to their lead in the final minutes.
“I think overall in the game they were making a lot of tough shots early,” Udoka said. “The fourth quarter we kept them off the glass. That’s been a theme that’s hurt us. Our execution in the fourth quarter was great.”
Rookie Cade Cunningham led the Pistons with 25 points, despite foul trouble, and sparked a 6-0 run to give Detroit an 82-76 lead, its biggest of the game. The Pistons hardly looked like one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, as they pushed the Celtics for most of the afternoon.
“They’re a physical group, that’s kind of their identity,” Udoka said. “Win or lose, they play the same way. We don’t mind if they let us play on both sides. We want to be physical, as well. Their record isn’t indicative of how hard they play and how hard they make it on a lot of teams.”
The Celtics appeared relieved to escape with a victory in their earliest start time of the season. With the Red Wings hosting the Maple Leafs Saturday night, Celtics-Pistons had a noon tipoff.
The Celtics fell behind early but were able to rally and secure a 56-54 halftime lead. Pritchard them kept the Celtics close with 7 points in the third quarter, and he added 10 in the fourth to spark Boston to its seventh straight road win.
The Celtics are 18-5 since starting the season 18-21, and are just one game behind the fourth-seeded Bucks, who hosted the Nets on Saturday night.
“One game at a time, man, that’s all y’all going to get from me,” Brown said when asked about the Celtics’ recent surge. “The difference is you go through the course of the season, there’s ups, there’s downs, some people don’t stick around or they’re not here for the lows but want to be there for the highs. That’s cool, we’re not paying attention to it.”