SAN ANTONIO -- Derrick White doesn’t happen everywhere.
But he always seems to happen here.
It’s a spring tradition, the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs -- 22 straight seasons and counting -- with a fresh-faced prospect from the incubator ready for a star turn.
Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard all traveled this path at some point over the past two decades.
In the absence of a future Hall of Famer or franchise icon to lean on, the Spurs have turned to their break-the-glass point guard. The second-year man starred against his hometown team on the biggest stage Thursday night at AT&T Center, making play after play to lead the Spurs to a 118-108 Game 3 victory against the Denver Nuggets.
The seventh-seeded Spurs lead the series 2-1 thanks in large part to stellar work from the 29th pick of the 2017 Draft.
“He was obviously spectacular on both ends of the floor,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of White, who shredded the Nuggets for a career-high 36 points (on 15-for-21 shooting), five rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block. “I don’t know what else to say.”
There’s no need, Pop. White’s actions did all the talking.
After getting burned by Nuggets guard Jamal Murray’s 21 points in the fourth quarter of a Game 2 loss in Denver, White countered with a virtuoso effort of his own. He had 26 points at halftime and flattened the Nuggets’ defense with his dribble penetration to set the tone for a monster night.
“I felt like a lot of those were on me and I had to step up and make him work today,” White said of his battle within the game against Murray. “I was just trying to be aggressive and trying to get to the paint. I know a lot times they try to bluff and get back, so I just tried to finish strong when I was driving to the paint and make the right play.”
While Murray entered the league with all of the hype that accompanies a lottery pick from a blue blood program [Kentucky], White was a lightly recruited combo guard who started out at Division II Colorado-Colorado Springs. He finished his college days at the University of Colorado and caught the eye of the Spurs’ scouting staff.
The growth and development that ensued, including extended time in the NBA G League during his rookie season, is paying dividends now.
White’s 36 points were the most by a Spur in the playoffs since Leonard’s 36 in April 2017. And he’s the first Spur to finish with 35 or more points and five or more assists and rebounds in a playoff game since Parker did it in April of 2008.
“It was awesome, especially defensively,” said Spurs All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who burned the Nuggets for 25 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals. “He took on a challenge from last game versus Murray, got us going and we fed off him. He led us offensively and defensively.”
From wicked open-court defense on Murray to a slick, no-look pocket pass to Jakob Poeltl for a layup to the presence of mind to know when to attack and when to facilitate, White played like someone who had been in the moment before.
While these moments could overwhelm a 10-year veteran, none of it seemed to shake White. He was the best player on the floor in just his third playoff start.
Derrick White came out like he hadn’t eaten in two days. He came out hungry, he came out pissed off and he sent a very loud and clear message ... That was a hell of a performance from a young player.
“We couldn’t stop him,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “I mean, they had 62 points in the paint. We gave up 16 blow-by, 1-on-1 containment, not game planning or anything. It was just the ability to guard 1-on-1, or the lack thereof. He was impressive. From jump street, he attacked, he got wherever he wanted and he finished. He was into us defensively. That was a hell of a performance from a young player.”
It was a performance that might not have been possible were it not for the torn ACL Dejounte Murray suffered in the preseason, prompting Popovich to experiment with White as his replacement.
White doesn’t get his chance to play hero otherwise.
Well, that late Game 2 blitz from Murray certainly added some incentive to White’s first playoff start before the Spurs faithful, who even showered him with a smattering of MVP chants late in the final minutes.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Derrick White the last couple of days has been reminded about Jamal Murray’s fourth-quarter performance,” Malone said. “Derrick White came out like he hadn’t eaten in two days. He came out hungry, he came out pissed off and he sent a very loud and clear message.
"Now I’m anxious to see our guys. How do we respond to that? Where is your pride? Where is your toughness? Where is your grit? So Game 4 is going to be really like a great insight into who we are as a team, especially our young players, especially Jamal Murray.”
White refused to play up the potential duel with Murray for Saturday’s Game 4. But he was caught up in the swirl of emotions Thursday night, pointing to his bicep and engaging the crowd.
“I mean, every now and then I get like that,” the soft-spoken White said. “It’s not really my thing. But just the emotion of the game … I think I just had a chip on my shoulder. This is the way I’ve played since I was young. And I was just trying to go out there and compete and have fun.
"A lot of things have gone crazy. I am extremely blessed to be in this situation. I am not taking anything for granted, but just trying to stay in the moment.”
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