Derrick White’s name probably won’t be mentioned much as players, analysts, and fans alike attempt to rehash the Novemberesque collapse the Celtics underwent in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. We’ve already heard Ime Udoka mention Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the players who “let it get away from [Boston]” as Miami capitalized on Boston’s lackadaisical play in the third quarter, ultimately fueling a 118-107 win. Tatum himself noted that his play in the second half — 1-for-7 from the field and six turnovers, as flat a performance as he’s delivered this season — deserves blame.
As for what positives the Celtics seem to be taking away from Game 1, it’s Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith receiving much of the acclaim for their efforts off the bench in a tight spot. Pritchard has been a rotation mainstay for almost the entire postseason, but Nesmith hadn’t seen non-garbage time minutes since the last game of the regular season. Pritchard had close to a “THAT’S WHAT I DO”-worthy performance with 18 points, five rebounds, and four assists, while Nesmith’s three blocks highlighted his otherwise-scoreless night. But the praise for their presence is more about the energy they brought, something the rest of the team — sans Robert Williams — failed to bring for four quarters.
All of this is not to say that White deserved any real credit or blame for what transpired in the second half of Game 1, at least not individually. Perhaps it’s just something that feels more noticeable given the circumstances of his insertion into the starting lineup. When it was announced that Marcus Smart’s mid-foot sprain would keep him out of Game 1, his replacement was obvious. White’s impact over the course of the ensuing 29 minutes he spent on the floor, however? Not so much. Certainly not tangibly nor painstakingly, but hardly between the margins either.
Perhaps it feels even more noticeable considering the fact that he’s such an obvious replacement for Smart due to his Smart-like skillset and play most of the time. He’s always been an inconsistent offensive player, but a defensive on-ball nuisance that can swing a game with his pressure and stamina. He was acquired at the trade deadline in an effort to add defense and depth, two things he has certainly brought. But in some of the biggest moments, he’s gone dormant — or worse, you forget he’s out there until he clangs a triple or chucks up a contested floater.
I pitched this story to the CelticsBlog editors midway through the first half, when White’s impact was most evident, but knowing full well that I’d be writing a piece about his performance as a Smart replacement overall, not just the applaudable moments he delivered in the opening frame. But that very action might tell the “Derrick White in Boston” story better than any specific thing he does on the court. That I was emphatic and eager to unpack his game following a stretch of defensive stops in the opening frame was warranted; he had ESPN’s Mike Breen commending his efforts, coyly saying, “All Derrick White is doing is filling in the starting lineup for the Defensive Player of the Year.” That he later disappeared, leading to the tone this story has carried thus far, is just as warranted, and just as unsurprising.
Some of those defensive stretches in the first half served as the kind of things you’d end up seeing in a player’s YouTube highlight reel at the end of the season. I’m thinking of two plays in particular; perhaps you’ll remember them, from before the foundation gave way. The first, a swoop-around block on Max Strus, showing the lengths to which White can go when he enters defensive recovery mode...
... and the second, a phenomenal on-ball effort against Strus that forced a turnover. It would have been an over-and-back had Strus not let the ball travel out of bounds, which would’ve been more satisfying, but it’s a turnover nonetheless.
Despite these flashes, however, there are still limitations to White’s ability as an on-ball defender. His first step remains slow, and though he often performs textbook defensive slides that help him keep position in front of ballhandlers, the shiftier the player, the less effective those recovery slides become.
Tyler Herro was the main beneficiary of White’s slow reaction time; he’s a crafty creator and a driver, and in two-and-a-half minutes of being defended by White over the course of the game, the Heat scored 17 points and Herro scored seven of his own. He was 3-of-4 from the field and had an assist with White desperately attempting to stay in his grill. As Plato said, “desperation is the mother of invention.” Fitting, given that Herro reinvented new ways to score any time White flailed with desperation as he tried forcing his opponent into a bad shot. Even Herro’s lone turnover and missed shot while defended by White saw the Miami guard burn Boston’s sixth man.
The problem with White is that he remains as close to an offensive liability that you can find on the Celtics, at least within their primary rotation. It’s well-documented that White’s tenure in Boston has been the least efficient of his career. And understandably, he doesn’t want to be a sitting duck on the offensive end. But he tends to force the issue, which ultimately fuels the inefficiency and the frustration. That hasn’t changed in the postseason, arguably the perfect time for players like White to capitalize on what they do best — defend, slash, rinse, repeat.
Instead, White has tried to ride his teammates’ heaters by launching three after three of his own, to little or no avail at all. In the playoffs, White has shot the seventh-most threes per game on the Celtics (3.2) and made just 0.8 of them, good (well...) for a 23.7 percent clip. That also slots him seventh of the Celtics' primary rotation players, ahead of only Daniel Theis and Robert Williams, two non-shooters, despite Theis’ wildest dreams telling him otherwise.
It’s not that White is expected to be a three-point marksman for this team; they have plenty of those in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard, all of whom are at least capable and consistent three-point shooters if not elite ones. But White appears to insist upon shooting, as though it is expected of him. With how poorly he has shot the ball as a Celtic, it’s hard to see a world in which White shooting more than Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams is part of the game plan. Maybe he gets hot soon. Waiting on that feels like a fool’s errand at this point.
White was acquired at the trade deadline for less-than-ideal moments like these, when Marcus Smart can’t go and there’s a dire need for a player even remotely like him to clock in. Of course, Derrick White is hardly Marcus Smart. We know this, and despite the comparisons I continue to draw between the two, I’d call you a fool if you attempted to link the two in anything but overall makeup. But on paper, he absolutely fits the bill for the Defensive Player of the Year’s ideal backup — despite differing opinions on his value.
It might have been expected for White’s impact to feel so silent amidst a noisy opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals. But it remains a less-than-ideal outcome of his presence on the floor. And that’s something the Celtics can no longer afford to have as the norm for their supposed prize deadline acquisition.