MILWAUKEE — When the Celtics acquired guard Derrick White at the trade deadline in February, coach Ime Udoka said he checked a lot of boxes.
Three months later, with the Celtics facing the defending champions in the second round of the playoffs, Udoka has continued to use the same refrain: The beauty of White is that he checks a lot of boxes.
After a quiet first-round series against Brooklyn, White’s versatility and value have become difficult to ignore against the Bucks. In Game 2, he started in place of Marcus Smart, who was sidelined with a right quadriceps contusion. In Monday night’s Game 4, Udoka kept White on the court as part of the closing lineup in a critical fourth quarter.
Game 4 proved to be White’s best game of the postseason. He played 34 minutes, by far his highest total of the playoffs, picking up extra time with Jaylen Brown in foul trouble. White finished with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 0 turnovers.
The Bucks lamented their inability to put the Celtics away — and White’s baskets played a role in keeping Boston within striking distance. With Milwaukee’s best guard defenders, Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews, tasked with containing the Celtics’ bigger offensive threats, White often is left with a matchup, Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton, that he can attack.
Udoka credited White with his effective decision-making in those situations.
“We needed that with Jaylen out,” Udoka said. “As I’ve said all along, it’s not only the scoring that stands out with what [Derrick] does, it’s him getting into the paint, making the right play, and if he has a favorable matchup, he can get downhill and get to his floater or pull up.”
At the other end of the floor, White was just as useful. As they did with Brown, the Bucks tried to create switches so that White would be defending Giannis Antetokounmpo, but White held his ground. According to the NBA’s matchup data, the Bucks were 0 of 13 from the field when White was the primary defender. In fact, through four games, the Bucks are a combined 12 of 40 from the field (30 percent) when guarded by White. Holiday, in particular, is 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) when guarded by White.
With Khris Middleton still inactive because of an MCL sprain in his left knee, White’s defense against Milwaukee’s guards is welcomed. When the rest of the Bucks are struggling to score, the burden on Antetokounmpo only increases.
The Celtics gave up a considerable amount to acquire White — guard Josh Richardson, 2019 lottery pick Romeo Langford, a 2022 first-round draft pick, and the rights to swap first-round picks in 2028 — but Udoka expressed confidence in the deal at the time. He expected a seamless transition, having coached White for two seasons as an assistant in San Antonio and for a summer as an assistant with Team USA.
The trade has certainly paid off.
While Game 4 may have been his best, White’s contributions have spanned the entire series. In Boston’s losing effort in Game 3, when Jayson Tatum struggled to get anything going offensively, White’s scoring helped the Celtics stay in the game, with 14 points on 3-of-6 shooting, 2 rebounds, and 0 turnovers. Even in Game 2, when he missed all six of his field goal attempts, White finished with five assists and plus-22.
White is never going to be the focal point of the Celtics. Tatum is on the cusp of superstardom, Al Horford is turning back the clock, and Smart is the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. White’s style isn’t flashy and his numbers don’t always pop, but he is stepping up big on both ends in his role in the rotation.
“That’s the benefit of Derrick,” Udoka said. “I think he does a lot of things well.”