NBA Finals 2022: How Game 1 hero Derrick White made Celtics the most complete team in the league


NBA Finals 2022: How Game 1 hero Derrick White made Celtics the most complete team in the league

Before the Boston Celtics traded for Derrick White in February, they had already started turning their season around. You’ve probably heard the story: They were 18-21 after losing a lead at Madison Square Garden in early January, then went the rest of the way 33-10, criticizing their new coach and expressing skepticism about their two stars sound extremely stupid.

But it wasn’t until they got white that they became the Celts. They became a team that can eliminate opponents even when the Defensive Player of the Year is not on the pitch. They became a team that could field defensively without weak links and offensively be more than the sum of its parts. Trade with the whites completed Boston.

For months, this group has reminded me of the 2019 Toronto Raptors, who started five all-defense types and were brimming with talent but took time to meld their Superstar’s individual gifts into a fully cohesive offensive system. If those Celtics were those Raptors, White would be their Marc Gasol, even though he’s seven years younger than Gasol and they play different positions. Gasol was the trade deadline newcomer that brought this team to the top and while he was never the best player on the floor, he was the guy who kept everyone connected.

To extend this analogy, when Gasol, a reluctant but more than capable 3-point shooter, was slamming down outside shots, as he did in several pivotal playoff moments, it could be demoralizing for the opponent. Every team Toronto faced in the playoffs was counting on him rejecting 3s or missing them. Fifteen games into Boston’s playoff run, White had shot 10-to-48 (20.8 percent) behind the 3-point line, most of them wide open and on rhythm. In several press conferences, coach Ime Udoka emphasized that White contributes positively regardless of whether his knight falls or not, that the Celtics all understand how he boosts their ball movement, increases their pace, makes good decisions and influences the game defensively.

Udoka was spot on. I do not know to need to shoot well to help Boston win games. But it sure doesn’t hurt when he does. He’s shot 11-for-18 from 3-point range in White’s last three games, including 5-for-8 in Game 1 of Thursday’s NBA Finals.

“You obviously have to choose what you draw attention to,” Stephen Curry said after his Golden State Warriors lost 120-108 on their home court. Curry credited the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for their playmaking, then singled out White and Al Horford for their shotmaking. “These two guys are key. You hope they don’t stay so hot, but you also have to do something about it and we have to find that out by going to a movie tomorrow and Saturday.”

White is both a receiver and driver of Boston’s offensive flow. To call him only a link is to undersell him; He can initiate attacks on the halfcourt, make easy baskets on the break, make cuts and, as the Warriors found, capitalize on catch-and-shoot opportunities. However, he transformed the Celtics by consistently making solid, easy plays, often after one of the stars dropped the first domino, and by making sure Udoka never had to compromise one end of the ground for the other. That last bit sets Boston apart from every team it faced en route to the Finals, and perhaps Golden State too.

“He fitted right away when he got to Boston and it was automatic,” Brown said. “So we’re lucky to have him.”

“Derrick is such a smart basketball player, he could fit in anywhere,” Tatum said. “I’m glad we have him.”

On Thursday, White walled his first two 3-point attempts. The Warriors, predictably, didn’t get him off the line when the ball found him on the edge. With the exception of his last make, an absurd late bombshell about curry, they all looked clean.

“I missed my first two but they felt great so I just stayed confident,” White said. “Teammates and coaches have always told me to stay confident. It’s good to see that [first] one goes down and just got going from there.

White finished the game with 21 points and three assists and was a game-high +25 in 32 minutes.

“He’s definitely a player who can always raise his level,” said Brown. “And I knew that before when I played with him [Team] USA, but learned even more from him at USA. He’s just a shooter. Certain people stand up for moments and have the ability to just drown out the scouting report and just give it their all.”

Before hitting one of his 3s, he blasted Golden State’s zone with a floater and set up Horford for a short jumper, two plays that won’t yield any highlight reels:

Defensively, he spent much of his night chasing Curry and Jordan Poole. On a representative possession, in terms of the effort White had to expend, he faced Curry off the ball, was momentarily forced off, sprinted around a screen, got Curry to put the ball on the ground, chased him from behind and shattered the glass:

Putting White on Curry allowed the Celtics to put Marcus Smart on Draymond Green when they were both on the court together, effectively taking the Curry Green pick and roll off the table. In the fourth quarter, however, things went so well without Smart that Udoka didn’t even complete the DPOY until the 3:47 mark. Boston put on a historic run, holding the Warriors to 13 points in the final frame before scoring a meaningless 3 points in garbage time.

After his third make from behind the arc, White got Poole to bite a pump fake, then drove the baseline, airborne Andrew Wiggins and earned two free throws:

He created a corner 3 for Brown (assist!), a 3 over the break for Horford (hockey assist!), and an extremely open 3 for Payton Pritchard (hockey assist wannabe!) by applying pressure to the rim:

The Celtics made more substitutions throughout the game, which combined with their no-light shooting in the fourth quarter, made it difficult for Golden State to find any semblance of flow. Up ahead at six, White took his stance against Wiggins as the clock ticked down. Wiggins danced with the ball, but instead of trying to shoot over white, he decided the Warriors were better off if Green took a 3. the back foul:

Those little fights between Wiggins and White didn’t stand out at the moment, but that’s only because White won them. Some teams prefer not to switch, fearing that late in the clock opponents will find mismatches and punish guards on the boards. Boston made more changes during the regular season than any other team in the league because its identity rests on everyone being able to hold their own.

Udoka called it “rewarding” to see the likes of White and Horford as Tatum had a tough shooting night, adding that the Celtics pride themselves on not relying on one man offensively. From the way Horford spoke about the trust they have in White and how much they love his energy, it seems they take special pleasure in seeing him at this hot stage.

Should Boston win three more games, White will join Gasol, Rasheed Wallace and Clyde Drexler on the shortlist of the best midseason acquisitions in NBA history if he hasn’t already. When asked what White brought to the table in the fourth quarter of Game 1, Udoka said, “A little bit of everything.”

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