Forsberg: Hauser, Pritchard ready to impact playoff winning for C’s

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The prevailing notion is that the Boston Celtics will go as far as their talent-filled top six will carry them this postseason. That’s not wrong, but it tends to overlook just how good the players who have held down spots 7 and 8 have been all season.

Despite fluctuating roles and playing time throughout their tenure as “Bus 1 Boys,” and more recently as members of Boston’s “Stay Ready” group, Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard have been key to Boston’s domination throughout the 2023-24 season, with both players rewarded for riding the role player roller-coaster in recent years.

Hauser (+14.2) and Pritchard (+13.6) quietly finished No. 1 and No. 2 in net rating for the entire NBA this season. A late-season surge pushed them ahead of teammate Derrick White, who rounded out the medal stand at No. 3 at +12.5. All four finished in front of MVP-to-be Nikola Jokic.

While the players at the top of Boston’s roster get much of the spotlight for the team’s success, Hauser and Pritchard have been absurdly efficient in larger roles and are trying to maintain that trend as the playoffs arrive.

“It’s been a journey,” said Hauser. “But it’s been a learning process along the way. Everything has definitely been earned, nothing’s been given. That’s kind of the way, I guess, my basketball career has kind of been. And I’d prefer it that way.

“But this year has been pretty special. Being consistently in the rotation. Being a guy that guys can count on and turn to to put the ball in the hole, or get a stop on defense. So that’s kind of my role. And space the floor for the five guys we have that were in All-Star discussions this year.”

Consider this: When the Celtics played the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Hauser and Pritchard combined to play just 55 total minutes. They made only three 3-pointers on 15 attempts in their floor time.

In Game 1 against the Heat on Sunday, Hauser and Pritchard combined for 38 minutes and doubled last season’s output with six 3-pointers on 11 attempts. Pritchard was a somewhat surprising early sub and finished +19 over 24 minutes. Hauser shook off a couple of early misses and made a quartet of triples while chipping in 12 points over 13:47.

“You’re going to need things like that to be successful in the playoffs. It’s not always going to be the guys that start the game,” said Jayson Tatum. “Any given night, we’re going to count on somebody off the bench to change the pace of the game, or kind of mess things up in a good way and change the dynamic of what we’re doing.”

Mess things up in a good way. That’s the sort of tagline that Hauser and Pritchard can get behind.

Tatum’s ability to thrive with reserve-heavy lineups was a big reason for Boston’s success this season. In Tatum’s 1,338 minutes without either Hauser or Pritchard on the court, the Celtics posted a net rating of +9.14, per PBP Stats tracking. That rating spiked to +15.2 — including a sizzling offensive rating of 125.7 — in the 514 minutes that Tatum shared the court with that duo.

Pritchard logged an impossibly low 57 total minutes in just 10 postseason appearances last year, nestled deep on a depth chart that included Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon. Hauser totaled 104 minutes in 15 appearances but shot just 33.3 percent beyond the arc, which limited his time.

It’s vital that both Hauser and Pritchard knock down shots to stay on the court this postseason. Opposing offenses are going to hunt them both when they are on the court. NBA tracking had the Heat connecting on 7 of 10 shots when defended by that duo, though both are eager to show they can hold up in those situations.

Whether it’s Pritchard and Hauser, or Luke Kornet when available to play backup big minutes, the Celtics’ bench players have proven they can make good things happen whenever they hit the floor.

“Just get on the floor and bring energy. Bring fresh legs. Just try to make winning plays, the things that might not show up on the scoreboard,” said Hauser. “Setting a good screen so Jaylen [Brown] or JT can get a matchup that they prefer on them. Or crash the offensive glass to get an extra possession. Holding your space on the floor so there’s room for guys to drive.

“Little things like that that really go unnoticed. I think it’s something that we take pride in. And it helps our team be successful.”

Tune into NBC Sports Boston’s coverage of Celtics-Heat Game 2 beginning at 6 p.m. ET with “Celtics Pregame Live.” Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine will call the game broadcast from TD Garden beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

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