Kristaps Porziņģis, Payton Pritchard take control as Celtics bounce back in Game 3 win

MIAMI — Kristaps Porziņģis loves visiting Miami. He has family here, the weather is beautiful and it’s a great place to unwind.

But was hard to relax after having one of his worst games as a member of the Boston Celtics.

“Oh man, it was a long two days, you know?” Porziņģis said. “Just the way it burns inside after a game like that, a loss like that. I mean, probably having my worst game as a Celtic, it really burned inside, I’m not going to lie.”

This might not be his first playoff run, but it’s the first time he’s had a genuine chance at a championship. He was brought in as the missing piece to this Boston core and Miami gave him a rude reminder of just how hard things are going to be in the postseason.

Yet during his 48 hours of angst, Porziņģis projected his patented cool. His team wasn’t too worried whether one bad game against the Heat was going to deflate his confidence.

“KP keeps an even keel regardless,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said before Game 3 Saturday. “So I expect him to bounce back and have a good game.”

Mazzulla made sure of it.

In the opening minutes, Boston ran plays to get Porziņģis an open 3 in transition, a hard roll alley-oop, and even a spot-up 3 curling off a screen. By the time he checked out, the Celtics were up 12-3 and never looked back en route to a 104-84 win to take a 2-1 series lead.

“He’s probably our most important guy on our team for what we’re trying to accomplish,” Jayson Tatum said. “So no doubt in my mind, I knew he was going to have a better game and bounce back.”

The Heat aren’t naive. They knew Porziņģis was going to try to get himself going early.

“I think everybody knew I wanted to bounce back from that game,” he said.

The Celtics could have doubled down and force-fed him post-ups, but they instead wanted to give him the freedom to operate in space and make those post-ups the counter-adjustment to the adjustment later in the game.

“It didn’t feel like falling into their game of this, like, wrestling setting the screen and now try to get the position and it’s a tough pass inside and they’re poking at the ball, just mucking up the game,” Porziņģis said. “It was like we were feeding into what they want us to do. And today was a little bit different and much … more of our game.”

The key wasn’t just to pull him away from the post, but to hide him from the initial action of the play. Early in the first quarter, they stuck him in the weak-side corner and ran a play that appeared to set up a Tatum iso. But then they simultaneously ran an action for him behind the whole play to get him shooting on the move.

“I think just getting him involved is important, moving him around, but he has the ability to create indecision,” Mazzulla said. “So I thought his rolls were good. They put pressure on the rim. I thought his pops were good too because he forces pockets of two-on-ones. So he’s going to be involved on both ends and he has a huge impact for us.”

Then in the post, Mazzulla recognized how Miami was effective in pushing out Porziņģis’ catches in the high post and wanted to use that to their advantage. Rather than having him fight for that center of physicality at the nail in the middle of the free-throw line, the Celtics shaped their actions to presume Porziņģis was going to catch his entry passes further away from the paint.

So once a guard threw it into him, they were supposed to cut immediately for a quick give-and-go.

“Just the way we go into our first action and create from there and then the next one, the next one, it’s like making them work more than maybe if it’s just a bit more stagnant and we try to find situations a little bit hard to get the ball inside,” Porziņģis said. “And, they’re handsy, they’re gambling. … Yeah, that’s what they want to do. So a little bit like counter-attacking that worked out for us.”

Porziņģis didn’t have to spend the whole game fighting for post position and that freed him to be more active and physical on both ends. But when Boston traded Marcus Smart for him, one of the biggest questions was how the team could replicate Smart’s confidence and physicality.

It’s come from different places throughout the season, but there is one player on the Celtics who craves it. Payton Pritchard’s often the smallest guy on the floor. He’s not a big leaper. He lives in the trenches, trying to muck the game up like Miami did in Game 2.

When Boston got off to its hot start and brought Pritchard into the game, Miami could have put Pritchard into cross-matches and worked back into the game.

Instead, Pritchard pressed Miami’s ballhandlers everywhere on the court. He shot with confidence. He made plays at the rim. He was a catalyst.

“Payton is one of the most confident guys I’ve ever been around,” Tatum said. “Any given moment, you know, he walks out there like he’s the best player. To have that confidence is special and we need him to be like that: being aggressive on both ends, being able to attack closeouts and create his shot, create for others. And to have that off the bench is special.”

Just watch how Pritchard came out defending to open the second quarter.

He was assigned to Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson throughout the first half, trying to hand-check them and disrupt their path everywhere on the floor. On this play, he hand-checks Robinson so effectively that he can’t even get to the screens Miami is setting for him and just dribbles it off his foot out of bounds.

Porziņģis represents their talent. Pritchard epitomizes their fight. As Tatum put it, the big test for them is to be able to punch first and keep throwing jabs the rest of the night.

“When you combine that with our talent level, I think it’s going to be hard to beat us,” Tatum said.

After an ugly Game 2, the Celtics bounced back and looked like themselves again. Porziņģis is the key to them reaching their ceiling, but Pritchard helps them maintain their identity.

(Photo of Kristaps Porziņģis: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

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