2024 NBA Finals: Derrick White, Boston's superstar role player, is what these Celtics are all about

Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

The Boston Celtics adopted this mantra for the playoffs. Whether in Game 3 of the NBA Finals when they are trailing by 13 points in the opening 12 minutes or their 21-point lead is unraveling in the fourth quarter, whatever it takes for as long as it takes, and nobody embodies that mantra better than Derrick White.

A member of Team USA's 2019 FIBA World Cup roster, White joined the Celtics from the San Antonio Spurs. He was well-versed in selfless basketball. He also arrived in Boston in February 2022 in a state of flux, midway through this core's initial run to the NBA Finals, his wife pregnant with their first-born son.

"I was actually with him in Miami the day Hendrix was born," says White's trainer, Marcus Mason, recalling the morning of Game 2 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. "I'll never forget just how nervous he was. He wasn't nervous about playing basketball. I know the difference. He was nervous about being a dad."

Forgive White if he was finding his footing, unwilling to step on Jayson Tatum's and Jaylen Brown's toes. The growth of White over the past two seasons has coincided with the growth of a champion in Boston.

"The comfort level and opportunity has increased," adds Derrick's father, Richard White. "Tatum and Brown have always said, 'Hey, you've got to keep shooting. We're at our best when you're out there being aggressive.' When he first got to the team, he was kind of starstruck. All of a sudden, we're playing games into May and June, which he didn't do in San Antonio. Expectations in Boston are high. It's championship or bust. They started to go on a run before he got traded, but after he got there they really exploded. He didn't think he was a major part of it. He was just trying to stay out of the way and not screw it up."

Boston, MA - June 9: Boston Celtics guard Derrick White dribbles during Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Derrick White joined the Celtics at the 2022 trade deadline. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

So Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla simplified the demands on White.

"I mean, we just try to make the right basketball play every time down the court," White says.

The right basketball play might be taking an open shot when the defense presents one. It might be driving into the lane, collapsing the defense and finding someone else for a similar open shot. It might be gently steering Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving to his left on defense. It might be a chase-down block.

"The last piece of the puzzle was Joe Mazzulla," says Mason. "Derrick's always made the right play his whole career, and Joe unlocked Derrick from a confidence standpoint like no one else, including myself."

Boston carved out a role for White in his image. Do what you do. Play basketball. The right way. It makes a player feel needed in the sense that only he can fulfill it, and now every team requires a Derrick White.

The thing about a Derrick White is that he is not solely a shooter, though he has shot 40% from 3-point range in the regular season and playoffs; he is not just a playmaker, though his assist-to-turnover ratio is higher than anyone who logged more than 33 dimes in the postseason; he is not feared on defense, though opponents are learning their lesson; and he is not a rim protector, though he leads all guards in blocks.

Boston, MA - June 9: Boston Celtics guard Derrick White and guard Jaylen Brown combine to block a dunk attempt by Dallas Mavericks forward P.J. Washington in the fourth quarter in Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Derrick White and Jaylen Brown combined for a chase-down block of Mavericks forward P.J. Washington in the fourth quarter in Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Those chase-down blocks, by the way, originated at Division II University of Colorado Colorado Springs, where he experienced a five-inch growth spurt, and developed in San Antonio, where he learned from a master, Danny Green. "He's kind of like me," Green once told Richard White of Derrick, "but he's way more athletic."

"When he got older and a little bit more athletic in college at UCCS," says the elder White, "he would always say, 'Well, I'll just let him get by me, and I'll go meet him at the rim,' so he purposely did that."

"He says, 'Coach, I've got this new thing I do. On defense, I just let my guy go by me, and then I'll block his shot from behind like LeBron,'" says Mason. "I looked at him and said, 'Derrick, that's the dumbest f***ing thing I've ever heard in my life.' I was a college coach for six years, and I've worked for some guys who were all about defensive toughness, so I'm just like, 'Man, who even says something like that?'"

Two weeks later, when UCCS faced Denver's Metro State, Mason sees White defending his man, standing upright, and thinks to his dismay, "He's going to let his guy go by him." White pinned his opponent's shot against the backboard with both hands, took it the length of the court and dunked it on the other end.

"And it looked like a poor man's version of LeBron James," says Mason.

Afterward, Mason approached longtime Denver Nuggets trainer Tim Gillen, then working for Metro State, and asked, "Is there something there?" And Gillen told Mason, "His body isn't ready for the NBA, but his skill-set is pretty close." Mason left the conversation thinking, "Damn, we're onto something."

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 28: University of Colorado Springs guard Derrick White, during warm-ups before playing Metro State at Metropolitan State University of Denver February 27, 2015. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Derrick White started off playing college ball at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Mason first met Derrick White as a 5-foot-4, 90-something-pound seventh-grader. "I had just left coaching college basketball," jokes Mason, "and I'm almost looking at the situation like I'm being punished." In 16 years since, White has missed one workout. It was six years ago. White built himself into a DII prospect, transferred from UCCS to the University of Colorado, added 20 pounds of muscle and kept building.

"With him being such an underdog so early in his career, he's always fought to be accepted," says Mason. "He's smart enough to know that, if he's not getting better, there's no way he had a shot. Most guys are thinking 'a shot,' as in the NBA; I don't think Derrick was thinking a shot in the NBA. He was just thinking a shot to play basketball at some level. Once he got from high school to DII, he was still fighting. Once he got from DII to Colorado, he was still fighting. We didn't even know he was going to get drafted. We were shocked ... so he has a healthy fear of failure or acceptance, so he's just always consistent with his work."

Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

That work with the Celtics has included cleaning up White's form, creating more arc, and transforming him from a below-average shooter into one of the game's greatest marksman. More than that, though, unlike most players, when White works out, "We train basketball as if there is always five people on the court," says Mason. "Never have we done it in 16 years where it's just committed to him as an individual."

In private sessions, White practices slip screens, flare screens and back screens, so when games come, he is prepared for each possible outcome. Gone is any hesitation from the 2022 NBA Finals, when he missed nine of his 10 shots over the final two games — both losses. In its place is a confidence that means, even if he might get dunked upon, he will meet any challenge. And that has permeated Boston's locker room.

"He's just a little bit of everything," says Mazzulla. "He can handle a pick-and-roll. He can score in pick-and-roll. He can stay spaced. He's not defined by scoring. He rebounds. He plays defense. He can play pick-and-roll — ball handling, the pick-and-roll screener. He's had blocks on bigs. So he's just another guy that's selfless and wants to impact the game in any way that he can, and it looks different every night."

Except it looks the same if you view White through that lens of selflessness. Whether he scores 38 points, dishes nine assists, grabs seven rebounds, registers a handful of steals or blocks four shots — all things he has done in games during these playoffs — Derrick White is making the right basketball play.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 10: Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla at TD Garden speaks with Jrue Holiday #4 and Derrick White #9 on January 10, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Timberwolves 127-120 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Derrick White has thrived alongside Jrue Holiday and Joe Mazzulla. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

That is obviously easier when Tatum and Brown, the leaders of these Celtics, shed their egos as well. For making the right basketball play is a team concept, not an individual one. The right play for someone's own legacy or brand or whatnot will not always benefit everyone. They are playing in service of the game.

That approach was forged by Tatum, who called a players-only meeting in the preseason, as Boston's "six starters" convened to decide which five would begin games. The humility of everyone in that meeting set a tone for these Celtics: It is a cooperative effort; each of them is required to achieve their common goal.

"There was all that discourse about, 'Who's going to start? Who's not?'" says Richard White, a Boston native and lifelong Celtics fan. "They put that to bed rather quickly. It was like, 'We've all had assorted accolades throughout our careers, and with the exception of Jrue Holiday — he's the only one who has a championship — that's the only thing we're missing. ... The only thing we're missing is a championship.'"

"Obviously the strength of this team is the team," adds the younger White. "We understand that JB and JT are our guys, and they are going to make big plays and they are going to make the right play. That's what the most important part is: We just trust them to make the right play every time down the court."

Do you know how simple that makes the game? Not easy. Simple. If I get open, they find me. If they get open, I find them. If I get beat off the dribble, they help me. If they get beat off the dribble, I help them. Stick to your spacing. Drive, kick. Stick to your rotations. Switch, recover. And then? Just ball out.

Or, as Derrick White says, "We just fly around after that." Simple.

"I think Joe is a basketball genius," White adds of Mazzulla, the 35-year-old coach whose job was on the hot seat at season's start, "so whatever he says, I'm going to try to just do it to my highest capabilities."

Of course, the same trust White has in his teammates and his coach, they need to have in him.

"We've empowered him," says Brown. "He's primed for these moments. We want him to recognize when it's his time to strike. We feel comfortable with him doing so because he's been doing it all season long."

"Derrick is special," says 38-year-old Celtics veteran Al Horford. "Derrick is such a special player. He’s a winner. He wants to be in these positions and these moments. It’s just unbelievable how he continues to find ways to impact the game. Offense, defense, whatever it is, he’s doing something to impact winning."

That need to serve the team in the moments most shy away from has always come naturally to White.

"He kind of just plays his game," says Richard White. "Throughout his basketball career, he does insert himself when the team is at its lowest, and they need a play. It's always kind of been that way."

When Mavericks forward P.J. Washington is barreling to a crucial bucket, as he was late in Game 2, the Celtics need to know White will sprint 90 feet to meet him at the rim. And when Jrue Holiday is bottled up at the basket, as he was late in Game 3, he needs to know White is waiting to let it rip from the arc.

"Derrick has a green light to shoot the shots because his skill set is taking the shots that make sense," says Mazzulla. "He can get into the paint and shoot the 2-foot floater off there, he can shoot off-the-dribble 3s, and he can shoot catch-and-shoot 3s. I love the fact that he continues to play. His confidence never wavers based on the shots he takes, and you can always count on him to make the big ones."

It also helps that Holiday fills a similar role, one crafted in his image. The backcourt partners can relate.

"I can't begin to talk about how grateful I am for Jrue allowing me to take that next step," says White. "He could have easily come in and been like, 'I'm Jrue Holiday,' and I would've been like, 'You are Jrue Holiday — 100%.' But he just did a little different than what he's done. ... Just love being teammates with him."

It is hard to balance deference and confidence, and both White and Holiday straddle that line.

"I think it's natural," says Holiday. "They had chemistry, and some things I had to figure out, but that just goes to show what great teammates I have. There's been times when I've struggled figuring out my place or what I need to do to help the team win, and Derrick has been the person who talked me through it."

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 06: Derrick White #9 and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics look on during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks in Game One of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 06, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Derrick White has accepted his role in Boston and is playing it to perfection. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

This is what separates Boston from its rivals. White, Holiday, Horford, Kristaps Porziņģis, these are not just role players around superstars Tatum and Brown; they are stars in their own right, accepting roles.

As White says, "We can just do so much."

"They all can get going at any point in time," adds Brown, "so that's the beauty of our team."

They have also seen it all — from lottery teams to this same Finals stage. And they are ready to win.

"They're high-IQ players, and they have an enormous respect for each other and each other's ability," says Richard White. "They've gotten to a place now where it isn't so much about what they can do; it's about what the collective team can do. They don't really care who does what. There's a lot of outside noise about, 'Who's this? Who's that?' but in that locker room they don't care. They just want to know that at the end of the game they have one more point than the other team, and then you just keep stacking victories. So far they've got 79 of them this year, and hopefully they get No. 80."

It is one thing to have chemistry and skill; it is another to have the will to win a championship. That drive has been fueled by Boston's 2022 NBA Finals loss, White's earliest experience on these Celtics. But his determination was shaped long ago from a diminutive frame into a supporting role on the biggest stage.

"Obviously, It was a different series, different time, different team. But all experience is nice," says the younger White. "We've learned a lot from that. I think we've grown from it. Whatever it takes to win, and whatever it takes to advance, that's what we've been doing this whole postseason. So whatever it takes."

For as long as it takes.