BOSTON — As he arrived in the arena for Game 5, Derrick White received a familiar text. It was four letters – DTBG – and he knew exactly what they meant.
These are the letters he wears on his wrist every day, the same message he hears every time he speaks since he was 8 years old. A message from his father.
Dare to be big.
For so many players, that means scoring points, blocking shots, or making scoring plays. But Richard White taught his son to only care about one thing.
“Winner. He just wants to win and he hates to lose,” the elder White said Athleticism. “Whether you’re playing cards or whatever, he hates to lose.”
The young white man never sought the spotlight. He turned away from it. When he made the All-Defense second team earlier in this playoff series, he actively deflected praise.
The individual price made him almost uncomfortable. Chasing his own blow tires him. His teammates and coaches have spent the year telling him that he had better be aggressive on both sides of the ball or else there are going to be problems.
But White has always been used to taking what he’s given and quietly earning more. When he first arrived at the University of Colorado Division II – Colorado Springs, he was unwillingly dressed in a red shirt.
“We didn’t set up a stench like, ‘Why is he in the red shirt when he’s better than those guys?'” Richard said. “We told Derrick that practices are his game and he played really hard and beat the other players consistently day in and day out. The coach said: ‘We’re taking the red shirt off. We can’t stop it, so we’ll use it as a starter.
Almost a decade later, he took the same approach when he joined the Celtics. They traded him at the 2022 deadline as they skyrocketed and he was key to their run to the NBA Finals. But he had to find his way to becoming that crucial piece.
“I went to the Celtics and did the same thing. “I just want to fit in. I just want to fit in,” Richard said. “He can be well integrated, but the Celtics have taken the leap this year because he’s done more than just integrate. So once he figured out how to inject, that raises the ceiling for him and the team.”
The Celtics needed White to fit into this series, which now sits at 3-2 after Boston beat Miami 110-97 in Game 5 on Thursday. Especially after Malcolm Brogdon left the game with pain in his right forearm caused by a partially torn tendon, the Celtics were losing one of their key defensemen to Jimmy Butler.
Then White helped silence him. White shot 6 of 8 from deep for a game-high 24 points after the Celtics went the first 3.5 games of this series cold. He and Marcus Smart started quick breaks on multiple occasions and defended every inch of the floor. White wasn’t just fitting in, he was taking over.
“It’s a long streak, and you’re going to need big games from different players at different times in a streak. That’s why it’s a team sport,” Jayson Tatum said. “You need everyone to arrive at some point, and Smart and D-White are the reason we won tonight.”
White’s dad recalled when his son won Eastern Conference Player of the Week in February when half of the Celtics’ rotation was exhausted and it started raining 3 and scoring at will.
It was a telling moment that the team could count on White to do whatever they asked of him, like Boston did to turn the momentum of this series around in Game 5. But it was also a reminder of the way the Celtics are at their best when he’s a perfectly machined cog in a bigger engine.
“I don’t know if I said this to Derrick or anything, but if Derrick is the fourth or fifth best player on your team, your team is going to be very good because I have confidence in knowing what Derrick is going to bring to the table and help others do what they do,” Richard said.
That’s the balance this Celtics team has found as they reach halfway through what could be the greatest comeback in NBA history. The Jays lead the offense, Marcus Smart sets the agenda and White executes. The Heat managed to get past the Celtics from the field with one attempt in Game 5, but that game wasn’t even close thanks to White’s 24 points and overall defense.
“Great player, big shots tonight. D-White is ready to play,” Jaylen Brown said. “As soon as they gave him space he let him fly and he got hot from downtown. Not just in attack but in defence. His aggressiveness is essential. They try to put him in matchups sometimes, and his ability to block shots, chase shooter guys, keep the best player, get out in transition, that’s the best shot. This is really the key for our team.
Game 4 started the change in the way the Celtics run their defense, going full pressure with plenty of assist rotations to cover for each other. The game plan was a tough close from the start, but it took them until the second half to execute it and the series turned completely upside down. Miami lost its dangerous shooting rhythm, Butler was no longer getting clearances when he wanted to, and Boston’s offense was living in transition.
Grant Williams, cementing his place in the roster, gave Boston a big rotation of men who would fly to shooters, handle Butler’s switches and still fight on box outs to start fast breaks. But that physicality wasn’t going to turn into anything without White and Smart aggressively digging the ball in and getting their hands on the passing lanes to disrupt the Heat’s offense.
“I’m going to play on Jimmy, then he’ll sprint from Jimmy across the field to block a shot,” Grant Williams said. Athleticism. “So he’s leading this and also Smart and all of our guys really are, so we have to feed off of their energy. It’s been really crucial for us to come back to this series.
Brown said the Heat reminded him of the Warriors with the way they sprint off screens, find passing pockets and move their shooters around so you still don’t know which way the game is headed.
“You can’t blink because they’re going to move, you’ll lose a shooter for a 3, so you have to be disciplined,” Brown said. “You have to be tough, you have to chase these guys because they’re going to be running all night. You must bring your running shoes.
This is where White’s discipline, persistence and drive lift this team. He does everything from chasing Duncan Robinson on a screen, swinging at Bam Adebayo and pushing him away, or locking Butler in to force him to give up the ball and then denying the passing lane so that the Heat have to go somewhere else.
“He’s been a huge change (in defense). He plays with tremendous effort,” Williams said. “He’s going to dig on Jimmy and then the next thing you know he’s going to sprint and chase Duncan Robinson down six screens. So I try my best to do the same. But then Duncan scored on that one possession. So I don’t necessarily have the same as Derrick, but at least he does.
Smart is the free security that sits down and directs traffic. Brown stomps the ball as Tatum takes out Butler, but White is the one trying to steer everything into the Celtics’ hands.
“D-White, second team All-Defense this year for a reason,” Tatum said. “He’s a big part of our team, our identity, the things we try to do on the defensive end. He’s a very smart basketball player on both sides, and his conscience, his instincts, they showed that tonight.
The Celtics are operating at full capacity again. They still have their backs against the wall, but they’re pushing Miami back harder than ever. They play with the highest level of confidence and connectedness they’ve shown since coming together.
“We have a group of determined tough guys that I know I can count on,” Tatum said. “I know I will look to my left and my right when all hope seems to be lost, when the game is on the line, when our backs are against the wall, everyone is going to fight and give their all. It’s contagious because we really – whether it’s an ignorant belief, we believe at all times that we still have a chance, that anything can happen.
In the end, all that matters to White is winning. The points are nice, but the result is all that matters.
So when the dad texted his son to be awesome every day, there was only one thing for Derrick to say. It wasn’t just about that night. It was about the rest of this series and then, hopefully for the Celtics, the ultimate next one.
It was about looking your best every day.
“He said, ‘I got you,'” Richard White said. “Well, we’ll see if he got me.”
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(Photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)