How the ‘new’ Derrick White keeps shooting the Celtics to victory

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BOSTON — As the Celtics wrapped their final practice before the Cavaliers came to town, Derrick White was working on missing.

Remember that iconic putback to win Game 6 in Miami last year? It wasn’t random. White practices that.

That’s why on Monday, a big plastic egg crate covered the rim where White and his coaches were working. His touch has been so good lately, that they couldn’t let him practice offensive rebounding without a lid on the hoop.

In the opposite corner of the gym was Jaylen Brown, who spends every day running pick-and-roll reads against several coverages. One coach is wearing a giant foam arm to ensure Brown threads the perfect skip pass to the corner. Practice at game speed in game conditions and the results will be game-ready.

Brown’s work was apparent in Boston’s 120-95 win over Cleveland to open the second round on Tuesday. But when he saw White come one short of a career-high with seven 3-pointers, he understood the work that led to that moment.

“We just go over certain reads in practice all the time. I see him on the side always working on the kind of shots he knows he’s gonna get,” Brown said. “We got certain actions, actions he’s mastered, where his shots come from. So it’s almost like practice for him because he shoots those shots over and over again. If a guy goes under, Derrick White feels confident, and he takes those shots and makes those shots.”

When White first got to Boston, he was shooting 30 percent from deep on many wide-open looks. Catch, stare at the basket, shoot — it wasn’t clicking. The Celtics paid a pretty price for this jovial utility player who could do a little bit of everything but couldn’t deliver offensively enough to be a part of the system. He was already 27, presumably a finished product.

Now, 2022 feels like a long time ago. That Derrick White is gone.

While he has spent the last few years saying his uptick is due to his teammates and coaches giving him confidence, it’s more than that. It’s the work Brown and others see him putting in every day.

“Derrick White has grown. Like, this is a new version that we haven’t seen before,” Brown said. “He’s put the work in, his body has developed a little bit, he’s got some more playoff experience and he’s being aggressive. We urge him to do that. We’ll need that more and more down the line.”

White joined Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray as the only players to hit 20 3-pointers over a three-game span in postseason history, per NBC Sports Boston’s Dick Lipe. As this season has progressed, so has White’s evolution.

“Hell of (good) players,” White said of the list he just joined. “That’s for sure.”

His individual output has a clear correlation to winning. When White takes at least a dozen shots, they don’t lose. The Celtics have won 21 of those games consecutively, with their last loss coming against Denver on Jan. 19 in a 102-100 thriller.

The numbers make it clear: Boston needs White to fire away to be at its best.

“It’s important because it means usually the shots he takes are because we’re either out in transition, we’ve set really good screens and he has that (look), or there are two-on-ones and we’re making extra passes,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said after White scored 25 points in Game 1. “So I think when those guys get more and more shots, it means we’re getting to the different layers of our offense which is important against a team like this.”

The thing about White is he takes some bad shots now, but somehow usually in the right moments. He used to be reticent to take anything out of the rhythm of the offense, but launching this shot with 17 seconds on the clock is audacious.

White broke from the play to take a 3 that Garland nearly blocked, because he felt it. There are not many presumptive “role” players in the NBA who can get away with that. He was given the green light when he got to Boston and the team begged him to speed through it, but this is beyond taking what the game gives you. And yet, his teammates and coaches seem to love it.

Maybe it’s because when he was asked how he felt about his big shooting night, he said he didn’t care.

“I think just the most important thing is just to win,” White said. “Like I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter if I score or however much I scored today. If we win then that’s doing enough.”

But with Kristaps Porziņģis out, the Celtics needed this. Even without their center, Mazzulla kept putting White in their go-to action “Octagon” which is the primary conduit to Porziņģis’ role in the offense.

It’s often White and Porziņģis on the elbow, with the rest of the team spaced to the other side of the floor. White reads the coverage, tries to get Porziņģis the ball with an advantage, or zips it out of there so his teammates can attack three-on-two.

With Jayson Tatum in the action instead of the injured center, Cleveland decided to hedge the action and send Tatum’s defender up at White to disrupt him, then quickly retreat to Tatum. Hedges are less common in the 3-point era because it gives the ball handler a chance to launch a 3. Well, White seized those chances and capitalized.

“I think on the one there, they went under. So I think that’s why I shot it,” White said. “But just trying to read the pick-and-roll every time and see what they’re trying to do. We understand they’re going to make adjustments and so we’ve gotta be ready for whatever it is.”

White has also become one of the team’s most reliable shooters at the end of the shot clock, especially when one of the Jays can draw a crowd and kick it to him for a contested spot-up 3. He has such a quick release and can shoot moving backward so well, making him the best spot-up option on the team.

Just watch how he directs Luke Kornet to give the ball to Tatum, knowing he could float back to the wing so Tatum could collapse the defense and get him a clean look.

“Just trying to get good looks and JT and JB get a lot of attention,” White said. “So just stay spaced, stay ready and I think I take a lot of 3s like that, probably made a lot too, so just keep taking good looks and knock them down.”

Tatum and Brown inevitably got most of the shots in the past, but they’re better playmakers now and White in turn has become a better scorer. So far, he’s averaging 22.8 points per game in the postseason. In the only postseason game they lost, White took eight shots.

Though correlation does not always equal causation, the sample size has gotten big enough to make it clear. And yet, White will happily go scoreless, as long as they win.

“He’s the kind of guy that can impact the game differently every night. Whatever the game calls for, he’s willing to do, and he’s done that,” Mazzulla said. ”And we need him to continue to do that.”

(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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