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BOSTON – Derrick White was barely given any time to acclimate himself to his new Boston Celtics team ahead of Friday night’s matchup against the Denver Nuggets, but it sure didn’t seem that way based on his brilliant debut performance in green and white.
Less than 24 hours after being traded from San Antonio, White touched down in Boston, headed to TD Garden to undergo a physical, and was cleared to play with less than an hour before tip-off. The 6-foot-4 combo guard then went out and logged 15 points, six rebounds, and two assists off the bench, while playing a critical role in crunch time to help the Celtics pull off their seventh straight win by a score of 108-102.
Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who previously coached White when he was an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff, said it was a “pleasant surprise” to have White suit up so quickly after joining the team. And it was even more pleasant to see White make such a great impact right off the bat.
“We showed him some film and got him acclimated as quickly as we could, and he did what he’s done, what I’ve seen him do in the past,” Udoka said after the game. “He’s a very smart player that does a lot of things very well. We don’t miss a beat with him out there. Space, defensive ability, shooting ability, simple things like running to corners and spacing - things that have been ingrained in him and been drilled, and that carried over tonight.”
The previous afternoon, White was sitting in an Atlanta hotel room when he received a knock on his door. He and the Spurs had just arrived for a game against the Hawks before Popovich came to deliver the unexpected news.
“Pop came to my room and he told me that they traded me to Boston,” White recalled of his parting talk with Popovich. “Just had a little conversation with him and just tried to figure out what’s next. It was all pretty crazy. I was pretty shocked. I didn’t see it coming. But as soon as I got here, I got excited and just happy to come here and help the team.”
It didn’t take long for White to provide such help, as he made an impact right away. He checked into Friday night’s matchup with 4:35 remaining in the first quarter, receiving a standing ovation from Celtics Nation that made him break out in goosebumps.
“I was a little nervous, but I was extremely thankful for the ovation that I got,” White said.
Though the nerves weren’t apparent, as he came up with a loose ball on his very first defensive possession, which led to an assist in transition to Jaylen Brown. He then assisted on a Jayson Tatum cutting dunk, before scoring his first points on a 3-point shot from the right corner.
Beginning with that triple, White scored eight consecutive points for the Celtics during a 70-second span. He helped them turn what had been a 26-16 deficit at the time he checked in to a 35-32 advantage by the end of his personal eight-point run.
“It took him no time to get acclimated because he knows what he’s doing,” Udoka stated bluntly.
Udoka chose to keep White on the floor with the closing lineup, which turned out to be an excellent decision. White made several key plays down the stretch, including a pivotal and-one layup with just under two minutes remaining in the game.
Having White play alongside Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum gave the Celtics four facilitators and four elite perimeter defenders. Denver didn’t have much of an answer for such a combo, while also having to deal with a lob-threat/rim protector in Rob Williams.
“You have four guys that can initiate or be a recipient of screens,” Udoka said of the Smart/White/Brown/Tatum combo. “Not a lot of people to hide guys on. They had some favorable matchups that we liked on Marcus or Derrick. We could run the offense through them or have them set the screens and they could be playmakers out of it, rolling or popping. Just using four guys with versatility out there that can do it on both ends obviously opens a lot of things up.”
It also helps that those three core guys – Smart, Brown and Tatum – had previously played alongside White during their time with Team USA in the summer of 2019. Coupling that with White’s experience with Udoka made the transition a whole lot smoother.
“Playing with Derrick on the USA team and getting to know him as a player and a person, his game, and coming back to play with Ime, things were already similar for him,” said Smart, who stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, five rebounds, seven assists, and five steals. “So we knew that it wasn’t going to take long for him to adjust. And he came in and hit the ground running. It was a big boost for us tonight.”
White hopes that it was just a small taste of what he can provide in the near future, as he continues to acclimate himself to new(ish) surroundings.
“I’ll just try to make their lives easier,” White said of his teammates. “Space the floor, create and make plays, compete defensively. Lately, they’ve been pretty special at the defensive end, so I just want to come in and not mess that up and try to help them out on that end as well. Just try to do a little bit of everything and play my game, and I think I’ll help the team.”
So far, so good.