Fans inside TD Garden have been known to occasionally serenade Boston Celtics players with exaggerated MVP chants. But the fourth-quarter shouts for Derrick White on Tuesday night were very much warranted.
White has been Boston’s MVP through the first two games of the postseason. After stacking up 24 points, seven assists, five rebounds, and two blocks in Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, White chipped in 26 points (his 11 field goals were his second-highest total of the season) to go along with seven rebounds, three blocks, two assists, and a steal as the Celtics took a 2-0 series lead.
Here’s why the MVP chants were even more notable: One month ago, while the Celtics were fumbling away a win in Utah, White spent the entirety of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Boston sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Celtics Talk: M-V-P! chants for Derrick White as C's roll to Game 2 win vs. Hawks | Listen & Subscribe
While Utah’s size played a hefty factor in White’s final-frame DNP, it was still a jarring moment. Head coach Joe Mazzulla would admit in the aftermath that not playing White at times in the fourth quarter and crunch time this season had been a bit of a blind spot.
So there was White with 4:25 to play Tuesday night getting serenaded with MVP chants as the Celtics stiff-armed all of the Hawks' advances. Boston had three guards on the court when Jaylen Brown subbed back in with White shooting those free throws, and it was Malcolm Brogdon, having a solid night of his own, who got lifted for the final span.
But even Brogdon knows how important White has been to this team’s success.
"Incredible," said Brogdon. "Just picking up the slack. Whenever we were in a drought, he finds a way to get a big bucket. Just playing with poise, maturity, and really playing both ends of the ball as well. He’s scoring the ball so well and playing so well on offense, it’s easy to forget about his defense. But he’s still blocking shots and doing what he does on defense."
White's defensive efforts could soon deliver him an All-Defense nod. On a team overflowing with defensive talent, White was the steadiest defender for a Boston team that finished No. 2 in the NBA in defensive rating.
But White impacts winning in so many ways. His +11 net rating was tops among Boston regulars (Robert Williams III finished at +11.4 but in only 824 minutes). Among all qualifiers, White was third in the NBA in net rating behind only Denver’s duo of Nikola Jokic (+12.5) and Aaron Gordon (+12.1).
On Tuesday night, White singlehandedly changed the tenor of the game with his basketball IQ. After Brown missed a free throw late in the first quarter, White snuck in and swiped the ball from a napping Jalen Johnson. White quickly attacked the basket and completed a reverse layup (and probably should have got an and-one whistle).
Moments later, White swatted Trae Young, allowing Brogdon to launch a midcourt buzzer-beater that banked home.
Boston led the rest of the night.
White’s impact is simply undeniable. Consider Boston’s record this season when …
- White plays 35+ minutes: 17-3
One of those losses was the night White was the only starter to suit up in Milwaukee. The other losses: A two-point defeat in Philadelphia in April and a three-point loss in Miami in late January.
- White plays 28+ minutes: 32-9
Boston’s average margin of defeat in those nine losses was 5.3 points. Six of those nine losses were by four points or fewer. Which means that if you play Derrick White 28+ minutes, you basically are going to have a chance to win the game.
- White scores 14+ points: 29-6
Essentially, any time he’s even slightly above his season output for points, the Celtics are a wrecking ball.
- White’s Game Score is higher than 12.5: 27-4
Game Score is a metric that combines box score output into an easy-to-digest single digit total. A Game Score of 10 is an "average" performance. So any time Derrick White is even slightly above average in output, the Celtics have the same win pace as the '96 Bulls. Their four losses in this instance were by a total of 14 points, including three one-possession losses.
White certainly aided Boston’s run to the NBA Finals last season but his head was spinning after a midseason trade. He had to leave the Eastern Conference finals for the birth of his first child, Hendrix. White has looked far more comfortable throughout the 2022-23 season, all while being thrust into a starter role given all the absences Boston endured this season.
"I think he's just more confident, more comfortable, has more of an identity," said Mazzulla. "I think any time you join a team late, especially a team that's been together for a long time with high expectations, you're just trying to figure out how you can have an impact and where you can. So I think stuff like that just comes with time and I think now he has a clear identity.
"He can handle for us, he can play off the ball, and he's really gotten used to our defensive schemes, as far as our switching and how we match up and kind of what the coverages are based out of those matchups. He has an effect off ball, on ball, at the rim at times. And so I just think he has a clear-cut identity."
Most importantly, White has been a constant for these Celtics. He was the only player to appear in all 82 games, a badge of honor for him considering he had multiple injury scares, including a ruptured eardrum, during the season.
White just being on the court impacts winning but him being as aggressive as he has been the last two games makes Boston that much tougher to beat.
"We’re just so much more of a dynamic team when D-White is asserting himself and being aggressive and not being passive," said Tatum. "Sometimes we talked about him being too passive and looking for guys too much, that he’s like too good of a guy.
"But these last few games, being aggressive, making the right play, attacking the rim, not necessarily waiting, just makes us that much better of a team. We’ve got so many guys, so many weapons offensively that everybody needs to essentially be themselves. We can play the right way and be ourselves, and at the same time be a really good team."
It’s usually Tatum getting those MVP chants at the free-throw line. But he’s OK with sharing them on occasion.
"S—, I was happy for him. He’s been playing his ass off these last two games,” said Tatum. "Obviously, a big, big reason why we won these two games. And we need him to continue to play at this level. And he can.
"So I was happy to hear that for him. We talked about it after the game. He was like, 'That’s what it feels like?' I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess.'"