What has to be the most encouraging aspect of Derrick White’s arrival in Boston is how seamlessly he blended in Friday during his debut.
What’s more, he was so comfortable with the Celtics frontline rotation that coach Ime Udoka decided to play him the final 17-plus minutes of a tight game against the visiting Denver Nuggets.
White scored 15 points and the Celtics rallied from a 7-point deficit for a 108-102 win, their seventh consecutive victory and one that could be classified as a quality win. The Nuggets, despite a slew of injuries, had won seven of 10 games, including a 36-point win at Milwaukee.
And the Nuggets led, 88-81, with 9:21 left before the Celtics stifled the Nuggets defensively, while dazzling with ball movement and making the game easier for each other.
Whether it was a Jaylen Brown alley-oop to Robert Williams or Brown setting up White cutting layup with under two minutes left, the Celtics played with the cohesion and chemistry they’ve been striving for all season but only attained over the past two weeks.
The fact White had just arrived in Boston on Friday morning after being acquired from San Antonio on Thursday afternoon makes this stretch of basketball even more impressive. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens paid a considerable price for White’s services, sending Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Spurs for White.
White is in the first year of a four-year, $73 million deal he signed in December 2020, meaning he’ll be a Celtic for the long term. And Stevens made it clear the reason he sacrificed so much for the combo guard is because of the length of his contract.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to get a guy like that on a long contract,” Stevens said Friday morning. “We think he’s a perfect fit for our best players. Derrick’s got 3½ years left on his contract and we know when you’re trading away two really good perimeter players that have been part of our rotation, you’ve got to get a perfect fit and a guy that can eat up a lot of those minutes and play at a super high level on both ends of the court.”
What will expedite the transition process for White is his familiarity with Udoka from their Spurs time together and the USA Basketball experience with Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart. The Celtics needed another reliable player on their roster.
Richardson was solid while he was here, but his stay always appeared as if it would be temporary. Langford could never stay healthy enough or be consistent enough to become a reliable option. Now the Celtics have that reliable option, one that has been tutored by sensei Gregg Popovich for the past four years and played in a system that emphasizes teamwork.
Popovich knocked on White’s hotel room door in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon and was the one who delivered the news about the trade.
“It was tough,” White said. “He drafted me, built me up and gave me confidence, so I’m extremely thankful for him. I had a lot of love for everybody, all my teammates. I can’t really put into words how much I love all of them. It was hard for me but once I got here, it’s a new chapter and I’m ready to get after it.”
The Celtics didn’t require another superstar at the trade deadline. They needed another quality player who could make their closing lineup elite defensively. Dennis Schröder was supposed to be that piece, but he was too inconsistent and erratic coming off the bench and his contract situation made it impossible to be part of the team’s long-term plan.
Stevens made it clear that White’s impact will increase in the future, when he chases another star player in free agency and continues to build the club into an NBA Finals contender. This year’s edition is not on that level, but it was enhanced by White’s addition.
Friday was an example of the type of defense the Celtics can play against a quality team led by reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets shot 34 percent, missed 18 3-pointers, and scored 42 points in the second half. The Celtics are banking that White will combine with Smart to form a defensively dominant backcourt, especially down the stretch.
Schröder was not an impact defender and offenses attacked him on pick-and-rolls in the fourth quarters of games. White, on the other hand, was able to play multiple positions in the key moments, even making a couple of appearances at center.
Udoka and Stevens relish defensive versatility and also placing shooters on the floor to support Brown and Tatum. The hope is White gets open looks for threes, which he did Friday, and knocks those down. His 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc with the Spurs is an aberration, the Celtics hope. His three 3-pointers were one short of his season high and most of his looks were wide open.
Friday was a dazzling debut for White, who now gets a chance to play for a team with real aspirations and he appears ready for the new challenge.