John Tomase

Pritchard joins Bird, KG in Celtics history with killer Finals shot

Boston's king of the buzzer-beater has earned a special place in Celtics lore.

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When Payton Pritchard's halfcourt heave splashed at the halftime buzzer on Monday night, Celtics fans the world over shared the same thought: "We're winning this game."

There's a moment like that in every Finals, the shot that puts an exclamation point on the championship. In Monday's Game 5 demolition of the Mavericks, it came early, but sometimes victory isn't assured until the closing moments.

In any event, the Celtics have now won five championships since 1981, and each has featured its own exclamation point, the shorthand for the basket that springs immediately to mind when we picture that magical clinching night.

Here they are, with a healthy heaping of Larry Bird.

1981 – Bird's dagger

The 3-pointer remained a curiosity in 1981. The shot fittingly had been introduced during Bird's rookie campaign a year earlier, but he hadn't really embraced it, making only 20 the entire 1980-81 season.

Bird already recognized the shot's potential as a psychological weapon, however, to be deployed to devastating and demoralizing effect. With the Celtics clinging to a 3-point lead in the final two minutes of Game 6 vs. the Rockets, he drilled a dagger 3 from the corner that clinched the franchise's 14th title.

He pumped his fist running back up court, his first championship secure, and his legacy as a playoff assassin born.

1984 – Bird "chugging down the court"

The Celtics weren't the better team in 1984, but they were the tougher one, and that's how they outlasted the Lakers in seven classic games. Perhaps no play from the entire series better exemplified their indomitable will than Bird's transition dunk "chugging down the court," in the words of broadcaster Dick Stockton, late in the second quarter.

The Lakers had multiple chances to score during the preceding scrum, but the Celtics denied Mitch Kupchak at the rim before Magic Johnson missed a short hook. Bird grabbed the rebound, split two defenders, and executed a perfect give-and-go fast break with Cedric Maxwell, who found him for the dunk that is immortalized from the under-the-basket camera angle.

The Celtics, and their superstar, simply wouldn't be denied.

1986 – Bird winds his way to corner

The estimable Bob Ryan calls it the best individual performance he has ever seen. Bird himself considers it his greatest game. The 1986 Celtics are widely considered the best team in franchise history and one of the best in NBA history, and the Hall of Famer put a capper on their championship with a scintillating Game 6 triple-double vs. the Rockets punctuated by one of his most famous shots.

With victory already well in hand and the shot clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Bird dribbled around a Bill Walton screen to find his way to the same corner where he had buried the Rockets five years earlier. In Boston this time, Bird launched the series-clincher to ice the third and final title of his illustrious career.

2008 – Garnett would not be denied

The 2008 Celtics had a chance to close out the Lakers in Los Angeles, but lost a close Game 5. They returned to Boston intent on delivering the franchise's 17th title, and Garnett wouldn't let them lose in what became a historic blowout.

He scored 26 points in Boston's 39-point victory, none more memorable than his one-handed levitating bank shot after absorbing contact from Lamar Odom in the lane. Garnett was on his back with one fist raised in a suitably defiant posture when his basket gave the Celtics a 20-point lead before halftime.

Thanks to that team's emotional leader, it was never a game thereafter.

2024 – Pritchard's bomb

And that brings us to Monday night. For a team that was never challenged once it opened a double-digit lead in the first half, the Celtics struggled to deliver a memorable capper down the stretch. It might've been a Jayson Tatum-to-Jaylen Brown alley-oop, but Brown soared for the pass and had to land before it laying it in.

So instead, that honor goes to Pritchard's heave, his second such basket of the series. In fact, take away his 14 points in garbage time of Dallas's Game 4 blowout, and those were Pritchard's only two baskets. But boy, were they unforgettable.

The first sent the Celtics into the fourth quarter of Game 2 with a nine-point lead. The second iced the title and lifted the Garden into delirium. It is the indelible image of that blowout – the ball hanging in the air, the arena erupting, Tatum pounding Pritchard in the chest.

And that means it's forever.

Watch as Payton Pritchard does it again, sinking the half-court three-pointer at the buzzer to give Boston a 21-point lead entering halftime of Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
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