Celtics guard Derrick White was twice serenaded with “MVP” chants in the final moments of his team’s 133-123 win over the Knicks on Friday night at TD Garden.
White, the only member of the starting lineup who has never been an All-Star, later waved off the praise with a demure smile.
But it is true that he was the Celtics’ most valuable player on this night. And it is becoming increasingly clear that these big games by secondary options should no longer be viewed as anomalies. Rather, they are what will make this team so dangerous.
Yes, there are times the Celtics still rely on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to carry them, but it no longer seems as essential to their success as it once did.
“You got to see a glimpse of the identity of what our team can look like on a nightly basis,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I keep saying this to the team: Success is going to look different every single night.”
On Friday, Tatum went nearly 10 minutes without taking a shot at the start, and Brown’s relatively quiet night ended early when he was ejected with just over seven minutes left. But there were suitable reinforcements elsewhere.
White made 10 of 16 shots, including 6 of 10 on 3-pointers, and scored a game-high 30 points. Kristaps Porzingis returned after missing four games due to a calf strain, made his first seven shots, and finished with 21 points.
Boston is now 11-1 with its regular starting lineup of Tatum, Brown, White, Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, and that group has walloped opponents by 27.5 points per 100 possessions — the best net rating of any of the 30 NBA lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this year.
“It’s just crazy talented guys out there, and anybody can score 10, 15, 20 points in the first quarter and get hot,” Porzingis said. “Anybody can do that. And each game is going to be different. I think what’s cool again is we don’t care who it is. Nobody cares.”
Although this group did start the game together, it did not finish it. With 7:19 left in the fourth and the Celtics leading, 119-106, Brown was whistled for a hand-check foul, his fifth, while guarding New York’s Immanuel Quickley.
He was frustrated by the call and directed an expletive at an official, resulting in a technical foul. He went to the bench because of his foul trouble and moments later received his second technical from crew chief Mark Lindsay — causing the automatic ejection, the first of Brown’s career.
Brown appeared stunned and quickly marched onto the court and gestured toward Lindsay, who was on the other side of the court, before being held back by Celtics and members of the team’s security detail. Brown said he was unsure what he had done to warrant the second technical.
“I think it’s a difference between showing emotion and it being disrespectful or derogatory towards another person,” he said. “I don’t think I was directing it towards him whatsoever. Especially on the second one. It wasn’t even close. I was on the bench, I’m talking from the sideline. He can’t even hear anything I’m saying. So he calls a tech from across the court.”
In a pool interview after the game, Lindsay said that Brown had been ejected for making a wave-off gesture toward the official, which is considered an unsportsmanlike act.
The Celtics, who led by as many as 20 points earlier in the quarter, began to wobble a bit after Brown’s dismissal. The Knicks went on a quick 6-0 run that was capped by a Josh Hart 3-pointer that made it 119-112 with 5:57 left.
And New York had two chances to crawl even closer. But Boston’s defense held firm, White converted a layup before adding a pair of free throws, and the Knicks never threatened again.
“We maintained our composure [after Brown’s ejection], the coaches too,” Porzingis said. “Everybody stayed calm, and we just kept playing and didn’t really give them too much hope. They did get a little bit closer, but we were able to maintain that lead and just finish out the game.”
Tatum finished with 25 points and Brown added 17 before he was ejected. But Mazzulla pointed to the tone the two set at the start, when they emphasized making proper plays for others, as the key.
“Those guys are defined by one thing,” Mazzulla said. “But in reality, that to me is success, because they allowed their teammates [to shine], and their teammates took the pressure off of them and they facilitated.
“That is what it’s going to take for us to be great, is the balance. There’s going to be nights where they’re going to have to be amazing, and there’s going to be nights where we got to play like we did tonight.”