SAN FRANCISCO — After his terrific performance in the biggest game of his NBA career, Boston Celtics guard Derrick White stepped onto the postgame podium with teammate Marcus Smart wearing an orange hoodie. On the front: “The Beatles,” with the famous Abbey Road image of the Fab Four walking across that eponymous avenue single file.
In the moment, if linking band members to the most important Celtics that night in their 120-108 victory, John, Paul, George and Ringo might have been (in no particular order) Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, Al Horford and Smart.
White? Ask him and he might have said “Pete Best.” Otherwise known as the long-forgotten original drummer who missed out on, well, just about all of it.
It had little to do with White’s value to Boston on Thursday night at Chase Center in staking the Celtics to a 1-0 lead in the 2022 NBA Finals, but everything to do with his shaky confidence as a member of the team overall.
As recently as the Eastern Conference finals round, White had talked off feeling his way into and through the pecking order of a new roster, locker room and system. He was, after all, the new guy, acquired at the trading deadline in February for a pair of players (Romeo Langford and Josh Richardson) and a pair of first-round draft picks.
It was no small price and, of course, Langford and Richardson had friends on the team, adding to whatever self-imposed pressure White was feeling to make good.
“I wasn’t aware of that,” veteran big man Al Horford said after Game 1. “We love Derrick. What he’s brought to our group, just his energy, his commitment to working hard. He continues to work no matter how it is going for him individually. He continues to prepare. We have a lot of confidence in him.
“Thank you for telling me that. I’ll make sure I address it. It’s something that he just needs to go out there and play. We have the most confidence in him.”
It’s revealing that Horford and a few other Celtics weren’t aware of White’s insecurity through the final 26 regular-season games he played after the trade, right into the postseason. He has a quiet personality, so the last thing he’d be likely to do was open up about feeling a little out of place.
White, 27, arrived as the No. 29 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft out of Colorado. He spent his first four seasons with the team that drafted him, San Antonio, and was deep into his fifth when the Spurs — eager to add assets as they keep rebuilding toward the playoffs — sent him to Boston.
If the deal hit White hard, it wasn’t so easy for those he left behind, either.
“When it happened, it was really shocking,” San Antonio guard Dejounte Murray told NBA.com’s Michael C. Wright this spring. “It was something that none of us was aware of, especially him, because he’s the one in those shoes and had to deal with it.
“He got invested in San Antonio, him and his family. He got invested in the community. He was loved by the players, fans, coaches, everybody. He’s a great, great person. So, of course that’s gonna be shocking. Of course that’s gonna hit hard. It’s supposed to.”
White isn’t one of those savvy, hotly recruited, teenaged stars used to attention and changes of locale. He had found a home with the Spurs and it wasn’t easy to say goodbye.
“He just was shocked,” Murray said. “We hear about the business side, but we don’t really feel it until it hits us. … But he’s a grown man, and he knew that he had to go make the best out of it.”
One person working on White’s behalf, even in sending him away, was Spurs CEO R.C. Buford. Buford managed to get back what he felt San Antonio needed in the trade, while delivering White not only to a promising situation — the Celtics are in the Finals — but to a place where he could find some comfort. Ime Udoka, Boston’s head coach, is a former San Antonio player and assistant coach. Will Hardy, a Celtics assistant, also worked there for White’s entire Texas stay.
So yes, it was tough to trade White, Buford said. “But he was also a guy where we had to recognize how this team wasn’t playoff contending as we were,” the Spurs exec told Wright. “And we had to search for the most value in the places we could find it. Having people that we knew cared for Derrick like Ime and Will, I think, made us feel like Derrick was going to a good place.”
White averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 assists in 30.3 minutes this season before trade as a full-time Spurs starter. Coming off the bench mostly for Boston, those numbers dipped to 11.0, 3.5 and 27.4 in 26 appearances.
As he got acclimated, his role and his usage perked up. In the playoffs, his minutes and scoring have risen each round, from 5.3 points per game against Brooklyn to 8.0 against Milwaukee and 10.0 against Miami.
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The Heat series threw another challenge at White. His wife Hannah gave birth to their son Hendrix, so White missed Game 2. In Game 3, he was nearly a ghost, scoreless and missing his only two shots in the loss. White started and came up bigger in Game 4, after which he talked about questioning when, and when not, to assert himself in games.
That still is a work in progress, despite his showing in the Finals opener. White was huge in the Celtics’ fourth-quarter comeback, hitting two 3-pointers for six points and posting a plus-27 in about 11 minutes. He wound up with 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting, 5-of-8 from the arc, while helping to defend the Warriors’ multi-guard attack.
Afterward, teammate Jaylen Brown said of White: “Derrick White is a baller. He has been for a while. … Certain people get up for moments, have the ability to outplay the scouting report, just can flat-out hoop. Credit to D-White, man. He can ball.”
That sounds like complete acceptance at this point, right?
“Just sometimes when you get to a new team, you’re like, where do I fit? But everybody has been just telling me to be aggressive, be me.
“Some games I’ll be just trying to fit in, just out there. People will pull me aside, ‘No, we need you to do what you do.’ It’s just good to have those reminders. I mean, I love playing for, like, the coaching staff and the teammates. They’ve been really just pushing me to do what I do.”
At this point, it’s safe to say that while White might not yet be on the crosswalk with the Celtics’ other Beatles, he’s a lot more Billy Preston than Pete Best.
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