With 11:17 to go in the fourth quarter on Monday night, Derrick White missed a three, and then Zion Williamson proceeded to nail a floater in the lane to put the New Orleans Pelicans up by eight.
Stretching back to the start of the Clippers game, White was 1-of-16 from the floor including 1-of-10 from behind the arc. The ever-steady guard was anything but on offense, hindering the Boston Celtics’ offensive production.
But no one batted an eye.
“I mean, obviously, it’s been a little bit of a struggle,” White said after the game. “So, everybody was just telling me like, ‘Stay confident, keep shooting.’ And they were just trusting me.”
The trust paid off. With 7:08 remaining, White nailed a tough floater over Williamson, and the floodgates opened. White scored 13 of Boston’s next 18 points.
His run was highlighted by a big-time three at the 6:22 mark that tied the game, after which White threw his hands up in the air with a sigh of relief.
“Just affirmation,” said Joe Mazzulla in regard to the message he sent White throughout his struggles. “I guess it’s tough. It shouldn’t be that tough. Because as I told him, ‘We support you, we got your back, we need you.’
“So, like, I don’t care. As long as you’re taking great shots and you’re playing on both ends of the floor, just be yourself. And I think that’s important. So, I think that the guys said that to him, too.”
Following an early-season surge, White’s impressive shooting efficiency has run into a mid-season slump, as he’s shooting just 38.7% from the field and 35.7% from behind the three-point line.
White still ranks second in the NBA in total +/- at +373, and his defensive presence has been a constant force for the Celtics, but his offensive contributions have dipped.
In turn, White simplified his focus.
“You just got to go back to the basics,” White said of how to break a shooting slump. “Stuff that you’ve been doing your whole life. Me personally, I was just focusing on staying in my shot and getting the arc. So, those are the two things I was trying to focus on most of the game, and I was able to see one go down and go from there.”
Ever since White was traded to the Celtics, the coaching staff and his teammates have pleaded for him to be more aggressive. “We’ve talked about him being too passive and looking for guys too much,” Jayson Tatum said after Boston’s Game 2 win over the Atlanta Hawks last postseason. “He’s too good of a guy.”
Prior to the Celtics’ blockbuster trade for Jrue Holiday, there was the Kristaps Porzingis deal. Marcus Smart was moved to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Boston named White as the starting point guard. They tasked him with taking on that challenge, and if it weren’t for the Holiday trade, he may have had an even larger role this season. They were comfortable trading Smart in large part because they knew White could make the leap.
By constantly building him up, the Celtics have empowered White to be unapologetically himself on the court. While losing confidence during a shooting slump may be natural, it’s something they’re trying to ween out.
“I want to know if we can get to a point where we don’t lose the confidence,” Mazzulla said. “I think it’s — we shouldn’t lose confidence. That’s a result-oriented approach, like, I don’t have confidence in myself. And I said that to him after the game. I was like, ‘Why would you not? You’ve delivered all the time. You’re one of our best players. We need you to be great.’
“And I was like, ‘I’m not taking you out of the game. I’m not yelling at you. You have nothing to worry about.’”
So far this season, White has embodied that idea.
Boston added two All-Stars to the roster, yet his numbers are up across the board. He hasn’t been shy on offense, and against the Pelicans, he was the driving force behind the Celtics’ late-game comeback.
“We need him and everybody to be aggressive in their own way. Finding their spots. Finding their moments,” Tatum said. “That’s why we have the guys we have on our team. Everybody sacrifices, but you still have to be aggressive. You still have to have an imprint on the game, and when D-White is attacking the basket and putting pressure on the defense, that’s great for us.”
After scoring just four points through the first three quarters against New Orleans, White finished the night with 17, shooting 5-of-6 from the floor and 3-of-4 from deep in the final frame.
White finally got his mojo back, and Mazzulla couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I’m glad he got it back, but I hope he never wavers because he’s that good of a player, and we need him.”