Celtics depth impresses in potential Finals preview after quiet trading period

BOSTON — Jaylen Brown didn’t need a new car. Jayson Tatum said he owes him one, a relatively small price to pay from one All-Star to another after Tatum’s elbow broke Brown’s face last week.

But when Brown learned that Tatum had made a joking promise to get him a “safe” car a few nights earlier, his eyes lit up.

“It’s been tough the last few days, but s—if I’m about to get a car, cool,” said a surprised Brown. “Are you serious, did he say that?”

Tatum’s response from a few yards away was a simple tap on his chest, the classic I have for you but please forget to follow him.

“He’s lying,” Brown said after observing the chest tap. “If he likes that, he’s lying.”

Brown knew the only gift he needed was the news that he would avoid surgery and wait for his face to heal before soon putting on a mask and moving on. With Brown out the last few games, the Celtics bench has confirmed it didn’t take much work either, just a small addition or two to round things out.

There wasn’t much of a stir like in years past, just a Danilo Gallinari replacement in Mike Muscala and some scope to add another veteran perimeter player if they can recruit one. A slumped Sam Hauser stayed in place. A wanton Payton Pritchard had turned down his requests for a bigger role elsewhere. Even Luke Kornet is still playing after Blake Griffin and Muscala were brought in this year to reportedly replace him in the rotation.

With Brown, Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon all absent on Sunday, the offense had to come from somewhere. It didn’t show up in the first quarter, so someone had to do something. Enter Pritchard, who came out firing and put Boston back in front. Then Hauser took over and hit a career-high six 3-pointers.

“When Mike (Muscala) came here, I told him, ‘ Appreciate that because it might be one of the best locker rooms you have,'” said Joe Mazzulla after leading the Grizzlies 119-109 in a Super Bowl matinee had defeated. “So your ability to just be professional no matter the circumstances is special.”

It could have been easy for Mazzulla to make an exception to that claim after Pritchard spoke out loud about why he hoped to be traded Thursday. But the coach has been preaching awareness and understanding since the day he took office. He can understand Pritchard’s frustration that his chance doesn’t reflect his performance.

“My mind is already reset. I’ve been upfront about where I’ve been and now I’m here,” Pritchard said. “At the end of the day I’m a pro, I show up and I work and every minute I get I’ll play because I love playing basketball. This whole thing about what everyone was saying – I love this city, I love this organization, I love my teammates. This is one of the best. That’s what the whole thing was about: that I want to play because I like doing it. That’s all it was about.”

Pritchard’s plight is that he’s a clearly capable Warden who’s seen his team invest in two players he can’t beat on the depth chart while they’re healthy. But they’re not always sane and those are the moments when Pritchard tries to live up to his promise and show the world his audacity to be transparent about wanting more was welcomed in the dressing room rather than shunned for his manner himself every day.

“I love Payton. I’m glad Payton is expressing himself and the honesty with which he speaks,” Mazzulla said. “I think it’s important to talk about these things because at the end of the day I trust him completely and no matter what his circumstances, he’s always ready to play. He’s the ultimate pro, putting him in the “no matter what, he’s always ready to go” category.

Pritchard, Hauser and Derrick White recalled on Sunday that the flimsy cliché of the “next man mentality” is not meaningless, it is difficult to truly achieve. Not many teams can deploy different personnel and still operate their system or even customize it successfully.

Brad Stevens could have thrown in a first for Jakob Poeltl or dropped five runners-up for a Jae Crowder type. But the Celtics kept it simple for Muscala, claiming to Pritchard and Hauser that their time will come and some of it is already here.

He already knows that Pritchard is the kind of player who can essentially demand a trade and then give 100 percent as soon as he gets the bad news.

“Sometimes you can get caught up in acquiring talent instead of finding the right situation,” Mazzulla said. “I think we just have a group of guys who are in a great situation and they’re taking advantage of that by playing together and being ready.”

Brown and Smart will eventually return, and Pritchard will collect more DNPs. It was opportune timing that Pritchard got this chance to play right as the deadline came and went, but that will eventually pass. The Celtics will be on their playoff run and he will inevitably be called out for a spark. Eventually someone will get hurt again. They always do.

Then Pritchard will have his chance again and everyone knows he’ll be ready. He had to put himself first for a while, but that time is over. Mazzulla appreciates this locker room because everyone in this locker room knows how to balance their needs with the common goal after struggling for years to find that perspective.

No one questions whether the Jays can play together. Smart’s shot selection is rare. You no longer have to explain to people why white is good. The world knows that Al Horford will never appear to be washed. The Celtics are a talented team that thrives on trust, so going up against a stacked Grizzlies team without three of their best offensive weapons made little difference when you’ve got guys like Pritchard ready to shake off their disappointment in their situation and move something right.

“I’m here and I love it here and I’m committed,” Pritchard said. “I want to help this team in any way I can to win a championship and put up a banner, whatever it takes.”

(Photo by Payton Pritchard: Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

https://theathletic.com/4188888/2023/02/12/trade-deadline-celtics-depth-grizzlies/ Celtics depth impresses in potential Finals preview after quiet trading period

Russell Falcon

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