It’s hard to take much out of the preseason, but I think Thursday night’s beatdown of the Charlotte Hornets showed the Celtics’ plan to hang their collective hat on defense. And I’m going to prove it with two plays.
The first was a quintessential Derrick White moment early in the third quarter. What looked like a pretty routine block was actually the perfect example of why White is such an asset defensively. He has freaky-long arms capable of creating extreme angles at the rim, in turn removing LaMelo Ball’s usually crafty finishing ability.
A lot of blocks are either products of elite help side defense—like when Jaren Jackson Jr. or Robert Williams III come flying in like velociraptors from whoever they were guarding in the corner. That’s great stuff, but White is doing something even more sophisticated.
White’s defense was an elite display of staying on top of a drive from the point of attack all the way through the finish. White maintained his stance and legally stayed in front of Ball throughout his drive and ultimately swallowed his layup despite his three-inch height disadvantage.
He was always a good defender, but legitimately elite defense was not something the Celtics were banking on when they nabbed him from San Antonio. The ability to destroy convenient arm angles at the rim is the hallmark of the best defenders in the league, and an absolute premium at the guard position. Think Victor Wembanyama if he was a foot shorter.
What White is doing is essentially the skillset of an NFL cornerback, attempting to seal off catch angles while blanketing the receivers entire body. Ball is a very talented offensive player, but had no clue what hit when White tracked his move from point A to point Z.
Our second and third plays show how not to contest shots. Enter the Hornets, a fun young team with abysmal defensive mechanics. The very next play after getting blocked, Ball found himself guarding White in the corner, and offered what looked like a fine contest to White’s three-point shot (0:55 mark below).
Derrick White is gonna have that 5x5 game one day, right?— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 20, 2023
15-4-2-2-3 in just 23 minutes last night. Put some respect on his name. pic.twitter.com/9PCy7hQSY0
The shot went in, and as far as I can tell White had no real difficulty getting it off despite Ball not being particularly out of position. The problem here is how Ball offers the idea of a contest, but doesn’t create any actual elevation to disrupt White’s motion.
The idea of defense was precisely what got the Celtics into trouble last year. Presumably limited by injuries, Marcus Smart traded some of his physicality for symbolic defense, routinely trying to wave his hand in shooters’ faces rather than actually disrupting the mechanics of a shot.
In Game 1 of the 76ers series, I noticed Smart attempting this blinding technique on James Harden. Results may shock you: Harden dropped 45 points and single handedly won the game for Philly. I don’t really know what Smart was doing, because Harden could probably make threes with his eyes closed.
Ball essentially provided a distraction for White, but did not play any actual defense. Sure, if White couldn’t resist the sight of an outstretched palm vaguely approaching him, that would be good defense. But most dudes can ignore that.
It’s hard to take much out of the preseason, but it’s awesome to see White’s elite mechanics and commitment shared by the rest of the team. If everyone can follow his lead and lock in, the Celtics should be able to lock anyone down.