In the final few weeks of the regular season, Derrick White had found a new gear and was arguably the third-best player in the Celtics rotation. Quick decisions, smart shot selection, and a team-first attitude all allowed White to thrive in a rotation full of elite talent.
Once the playoffs began, White continued his stellar play, hurting the Atlanta Hawks’ defense in a string of ways. If his scoring touch wasn’t there, he became a playmaker. If a good pass didn’t become available, White would drop his shoulder and force his way to the rim. Catch a pass on the perimeter in space? No hesitation pull-up.
“DWhite is like the ultimate teammate,” Tatum said on March 25. “And he’s a hell of a basketball player…can create, can pass, can shoot. And, you know, can be too unselfish sometimes.”
Alas, White’s level of production eventually began to wane at the tail end of the first round, only for the All-Defense Second Team guard to then be given the unenviable task of guarding Tyrese Maxey when Boston faced the Philadelphia 76ers. That task seemed to be the worst possible scenario for White, as he struggled to contain the Sixers' young guard, especially in the open court or when chasing him around screens.
To be fair, Maxey is a tough cover for anybody, especially when he’s playing off of Joel Embiid and James Harden’s scoring gravity. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla changed his rotations. White went back to the bench, and the Celtics instantly smashed two straight wins down Philly’s throat to progress back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This brings us to the Miami Heat: a team that plays hard, a team that plays physically, and a team that’s as well coached as they come. What they’re not, though, is a team that’s blessed with guard talent. Yes, Pat Riley thought he had resolved that talent disparity at the guard position when he acquired Kyle Lowry in 2021, but instead, he got a shadow of the guard that frustrated and dominated teams during his time with the Toronto Raptors.
Other than Lowry, the Heat can call upon Gabe Vincent and Tyler Herro. One of those is a former Sixth Man of the Year who has struggled with injury during the postseason, and the other is a former G-League standout. None of them are equipped to deal with Derrick White. Not a single one.
That’s where White’s versatility comes into play. Throw a solid point-of-attack defender on him and he’ll defer before killing you with his off-ball movement. Put a ‘chase’ defender on his trail, and those touch passes will have you chasing shadows. And under no circumstances should you ever expect a help defender to have success against someone who can cook you on three levels and dictate the tempo of a game.
“He’s opportunistic in some of the things that he does,” Trae Young said of Derrick White’s performance in Game 2. “But he also stands alone. He’s assertive. He’s getting into the lane and attacking the rim. He’s made big threes off the dribble too, which are hard to guard…we’re gonna get ready for him.”
In a series where the primary battles are expected to take place elsewhere on the floor, White can re-assert himself into Boston’s postseason run. Coming off the bench, it’s likely that Joe Mazzulla will ask White to spend some time guarding Lowry, and while that could be a tough cover on the defensive end, it’s hard to envision the aging guard being able to keep pace when White is on offense and moving with relentlessness.
White’s ability to drive into the teeth of a defense will also prove valuable in the upcoming series against the Heat — a team that has long stifled Boston’s offense with their commitment to running different variations of zone defense.
However, with White fully engrained in the Celtics system and Al Horford as one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA (humbly), Boston should have no problem cutting through Miami’s zone coverage akin to a Hippopotamus in a river: forceful and graceful all at once.
“I think he just brings a level of humility and competitiveness,” Joe Mazzulla said on March 26. “And I think he’s gotten more and more comfortable with just playing his game. And so being aggressive off of pick-and-rolls, taking open shots, driving, and I just love what he brings to us defensively as well.”
With a potential NBA Finals return on the line, White’s time to shine has come, and if Boston is going to have a legitimate chance of hanging a championship banner at TD Garden this year, they need the version of Derrick White we saw to end the season — the same version that locked up guys on one end before smoking them in multiple ways on the other. The Derrick White that wasn’t afraid to call his own number but understood when to pass the rock, or ‘Nash’ his dribble to give his teammates time to create someone via off-ball actions.
That’s the version of White that the Celtics need, and this series, against a guard-shy Heat team, is the perfect one to bring that dominance back out of him.