NEW YORK — Derrick White is an excellent defensive player. But he isn’t the Celtics’ best defensive player. That would be his backcourt mate Marcus Smart, who happens to be the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
White is an astonishingly good shot blocker, especially for a guard who tops out at 6 feet 4 inches. But he isn’t the Celtics’ best shot blocker. That would be center Robert Williams, whose wingspan and 6-10 frame routinely inhabit the nightmares of would-be shooters.
White isn’t the team’s best scorer, not as long as Jayson Tatum is around, and he’s certainly not its loudest talker, not when coaches and teammates routinely crack jokes about how little he says at all.
But White is one of the Celtics’ most important players, as much for what he represents as what he does on the court, the embodiment of so much of what is going right in a season that counted its 31st victory against just 12 losses with a 109-98 road win over the red-hot Nets Thursday night.
The Celtics secured the win with a dominant fourth quarter, one ignited in the opening seconds by White’s leaping block on a driving T.J. Warren and secured in its final minutes by his smooth corner 3-pointer, his fourth of the game and 15th point. On a back-and-forth night that didn’t quite live up to the anticipated Eastern Conference playoff preview it might have been had Kevin Durant been out there for the Nets or Jaylen Brown for the Celtics, rather than both of them sidelined by injury, White made sure to do his part.
With seven rebounds, including five on the defensive end, and an overall defensive effort alongside Smart that held Kyrie Irving to 9-of-24 shooting (including 3 of 11 from 3-point range), White continues to show in his first full season since being traded to Boston last year how much he deserves to be a starter, even if his ascension to that role began as a way to offset the absence of Williams as he battled back from knee surgery.
“He plays with such a sense of joy and toughness all the time, regardless of how the game’s going, regardless of how the team is doing,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “He does a great job, and he’s been doing it throughout the year. You can’t be a great team without that depth, and Derrick’s part of that. The joy and competition he brings on both ends, guys enjoy playing with him.”
And opponents can’t stand playing against him, especially when he runs down a shot and swats it away the way he did against Warren. The play came at 11:21 of the fourth, with the Celtics clinging to a 2-point lead. Two baskets apiece from Payton Pritchard and Malcom Brogdon in the next 2:23 pushed the lead to 8 and forced the Nets into a timeout. Boston wouldn’t lead by less than 7 the rest of the way, with White’s smooth three with 1:13 left extending the lead to 11.
For a guard who isn’t afraid to remind his teammates of that shot-blocking prowess — he’s up to 41 on the season — his lone block Thursday couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s obviously fun,” White said. “I’ve kind of been doing it for a while now. It was a big play. I keep trying to tell [teammates] I’m a shot blocker, so I had to try and get another one.”
As shot-blocking guards go, White is “one of the very best, one of the best I’ve seen,” according to the veteran Brogdon, who was traded to the team this year. “That’s a skill, for sure, definitely a skill.”
As Celtics defense goes, it’s Smart’s individual skill that stands out most, and his return from a brief knee injury was vital to the effort of containing Irving. But Smart is even better because he knows he has White at his side and at his back.
“It’s great playing with Derrick,” Smart said. “He doesn’t really say too much; that’s OK, because I talk more, I balance it out.
“He’s fun. His ability to be able to guard, to play the defensive end, block the shots he does, especially when he seems to be beaten and just recovers, he makes my job easier because the majority of the time I’m guarding the team’s best player, he comes in and is able to switch off and give me a break.
“I definitely think [we’re better together] because you got to deal with me and you got to deal with him right after that, or vice versa. We constantly keep teams on their toes, make everything tough on them, at least we try to. For us two to be on the court at the same time I definitely think we give other teams headaches.”
With their eyes on a long playoff run and their hearts set on a championship, the Celtics are going to need the type of depth and versatility White brings. His lanky frame was everywhere Thursday, black compression tights lifting him into the air so often you were well-acquainted with the hot-pink soles of his shoes, long arms unfurling their wingspan often enough to remind you of what he does best.
“I like to think I’m a pretty good defender guard-wise,” Smart said. “But protecting the paint? I got nothing on him.”