PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics did not plan for Derrick White to be a starter this season. They brought back the lineup that dominated the NBA last year and nearly won a championship, and there was no reason for it to be disturbed.
But injuries and other issues forced changes. Robert Williams was sidelined until mid-December after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Marcus Smart missed three weeks because of an ankle injury. Al Horford did not play in games on back-to-back nights. Jaylen Brown suffered a facial fracture.
So time and again, for various reasons, White joined the first group. Even though he is not a regular starter, he has been on the court for tipoff in 51 games this season, second only to All-Star forward Jayson Tatum. And he certainly has not looked like a fill-in.
With White on the court, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions, a sparkling net rating that ranks sixth in the NBA, behind four Nuggets and Thunder guard Isaiah Joe.
The 6-foot-4-inch guard is tied for 31st in the league in blocks per game, and he’s shooting 38.8 percent from the 3-point line. By any measure, he has been excellent. And now that the Celtics are fully healthy again — they used their regular starting lineup for just the second time all season in Thursday’s overtime win over the Pacers — things could get a bit complicated.
“Obviously, everybody wants to be out there,” White said. “But you have to make sacrifices. I trust everybody on this team, so if Coach thinks they’ve got it going that night, it’s them. You’ve got to just be humble enough to accept that, and I think I’m ready to do that. I think we’re all ready to do that.”
The first example of this shift arrived Thursday, with White in the midst of another strong night. When he went to the bench with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter, he had made half of his shots and registered 17 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. The Celtics outscored the Pacers by 8 points during his 25 minutes on the floor.
But he did not return to the court again. He sat for the end of regulation as well as all of overtime, with coach Joe Mazzulla deploying reserve guard Malcolm Brogdon alongside starters Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Horford.
“I think we have so much on the bench, excellent players sitting on the bench,” Brogdon said. “It’s up to Joe to figure out how to use us all, and I think he’s been doing a good job of that.
“It’s been tough. A lot of us play well most nights, so it’s up to Joe to figure out who to have in the game throughout the game, and then to finish games.”
There inevitably will be new injuries, of course. And Mazzulla’s night-to-night decisions will often depend on matchups. But for now, it’s hard to see how White, who was recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week and has arguably been the Celtics’ second-most valuable player after Tatum, could get shortchanged.
“I’ve always said we need guys like that because of their humility and their competitive nature,” Mazzulla said. “And they understand that, regardless of what the situation is, they’re ready to play and execute.
“[Against Indiana], it was Malcolm. It could be either one of those guys. So you have to have guys like that, and Derrick has the humility to understand that, and he competes regardless.”
White said Mazzulla recently pulled him aside and told him that the Celtics are at their best when he is aggressive, so no matter the situation, no matter when he is on the court, that approach must remain consistent.
“Obviously, some games are going to be better than others, but that’s the NBA,” White said. “Some nights [sitting] is going to be easy and some nights it’s going to be difficult. But we just have a bigger picture in mind and we’re going to have to figure it out and just understand it.”