BOSTON — As he arrived at the arena for Game 5, Derrick White received a familiar text. It was four letters — DTBG — and he knew exactly what they meant.
Those are the letters he wears on his wrist every day, the same message he has heard every time he has taken the floor since he was 8. A message from his father.
Dare to be great.
For so many players, that means putting up points, blocking shots or making highlight plays. But Richard White taught his son to only care about one thing.
“Winning. He just wants to win and he hates losing,” the elder White told The Athletic. “Whether you’re playing cards or whatever, he just hates losing.”
The younger White has never sought the spotlight. He’s shied away from it. When he made second-team All-Defense earlier in this playoff run, he actively deflected the praise.
The individual award almost made him uncomfortable. Hunting his own shot makes him weary. His teammates and coaches have spent the year telling him he had better be aggressive on both ends of the ball or there’s going to be problems.
But White has always been used to taking what’s given to him and quietly earning more. When he first arrived at Division II University of Colorado — Colorado Springs, he was redshirted against his wishes.
“We didn’t put up a stink about it like, ‘Why is he redshirting when he’s better than these guys?’” Richard said. “We told Derrick that practices are his game and he played those really hard and beat the other players consistently, day in and day out. The coach said, ‘We’re pulling the redshirt. We can’t stop him so we’re going to use him as a starter.’”
Nearly a decade later, he took the same approach joining the Celtics. They traded for him at the 2022 deadline as they were surging and he was key to their NBA Finals run. But he had to find his way to becoming that crucial piece.
“Got to the Celtics and did the same thing. ‘I just want to fit in. I just want to fit in,’” Richard said. “He can be good fitting in, but the Celtics took the leap this year because he did more than just fit in. So once he figures out how to inject himself, that raises the ceiling for himself and the team.”
The Celtics needed White to insert himself into this series, which now sits at 3-2 after Boston beat Miami 110-97 in Game 5 Thursday. Especially after Malcolm Brogdon left the game due to soreness in his right forearm caused by a partially torn tendon, the Celtics were losing one of their key defenders on Jimmy Butler.
Then White helped shut him down. White shot 6 of 8 from deep for a game-high 24 points after the Celtics spent the first 3.5 games of this series cold. He and Marcus Smart started fast breaks repeatedly and defended every inch of the floor. White wasn’t just fitting in, he was taking over.
“It’s a long series, and you’re going to need big games from different guys at different points of a series. That’s why it’s a team sport,” Jayson Tatum said. “You need everybody at some point to come up big, and Smart and D-White is the reason we won tonight.”
White’s father remembered when his son won Eastern Conference Player of the Week in February when half of the Celtics rotation was out and he started raining 3s and scoring at will.
It was a revelatory moment that the team could count on White to do anything it asked of him, as Boston did to flip the momentum of this series in Game 5. But it was also a reminder of how the Celtics are at their best when he is a perfectly machined cog in a larger engine.
“I don’t know whether I’ve said this to Derrick or anything, but if Derrick is the fourth- or fifth-best player on your team, your team’s going to be very good because I have confidence in knowing what Derrick’s going to bring to the table and help the others do what they do,” Richard said.
That’s the balance this Celtics team has found as it has reached the halfway point of what could be the biggest comeback in NBA history. The Jays run the offense, Marcus Smart sets the agenda, and White executes. The Heat managed to outshoot the Celtics from the field by one attempt in Game 5, but this game wasn’t even close thanks to White’s game-high 24 points and all-encompassing defense.
“Big-time player, big-time shots tonight. D-White came ready to play,” Jaylen Brown said. “As soon as they gave him any space, he let it fly, and he got hot from downtown. Not just on offense but on defense. His aggressiveness is key. They try to put him into matchups at times, and his ability to be able to block shots, chase guys off shooters, guard the best player, get out in transition, that’s the greatest shot. That’s really key for our team.”
Game 4 began the shift in how the Celtics execute their defense, going to all-out pressure with extensive help rotations to cover for each other. The game plan was to hard closeout from the beginning, but it took them until the second half to execute it and the series completely flipped. Miami lost its dangerous shooting rhythm, Butler was no longer getting clearouts whenever he wanted, and Boston’s offense was living in transition.
Grant Williams cementing his place in the lineup gave Boston a big man rotation that would fly out to shooters, handle switches on Butler, and still fight on box outs to start fast breaks. But that physicality wasn’t going to turn into anything without White and Smart aggressively digging in at the ball and getting hands in passing lanes to disrupt the Heat’s offense.
“I’ll go make a play on Jimmy and then he’ll sprint from Jimmy all the way across the court to get a shot blocked,” Grant Williams told The Athletic. “So he’s leading that and also Smart and all our guys really are, so we’ve got to feed off their energy. He’s been really crucial for us coming back in this series.”
Brown said the Heat remind him of the Warriors with the way they sprint off screens, find the passing pockets, and relocate their shooters so you’re always confused about which direction the play is heading.
“You can’t blink because they’ll relocate, you’ll lose a shooter for a 3, so you’ve got to be disciplined,” Brown said. “You’ve got to be sound, you’ve got to chase those guys because all night they’re going to be running. You’ve got to bring your track shoes.”
That’s where White’s discipline, persistence and engine lift this team. He does everything from chasing Duncan Robinson over a screen, switching onto Bam Adebayo and bumping him off the spot, or locking up Butler to force him to give the ball up and then denying the passing lane so the Heat have to go somewhere else.
“He’s been huge shifting (on defense). He’s playing with tremendous effort,” said Williams. “He’ll dig on Jimmy and then the next thing you know, he’ll sprint off and chase Duncan Robinson off six screens. So I try my best to do the same thing. But then Duncan scored on that one possession. So I don’t necessarily have the same thing as Derrick, but at least he has it.”
Smart is the free safety sitting back and directing traffic. Brown is poking at the ball while Tatum is taking out Butler, but White is the one trying to steer everything into the Celtics’ hands.
“D-White, second-team All-Defense this year for a reason,” Tatum said. “He’s a big part of our team, our identity, things we try and do on the defensive end. He’s a very smart basketball player on both ends, and his awareness, his instincts, they showed tonight.”
The Celtics are running at full capacity once again. Their backs are still against the wall, but they’re pushing back at Miami harder than ever. They’re playing with trust and connectivity at the highest level they’ve shown since they came together.
“We’ve got a group of determined, tough guys that I know I can count on,” Tatum said. “I know I’m going to look to my left and my right when all hope seems to be lost, when the game is on the line, our backs are against the wall, that everybody is going to go down fighting and give everything they have. That’s contagious because we truly — whether it’s ignorant belief, we do believe at all times that we still have a chance, that anything can happen.”
In the end, all the Whites care about is winning. The points are nice, but the result is all that matters.
So when the father texted his son to be great every day, there was only one thing for Derrick to say. It wasn’t just about this night. It was about the rest of this series and then, hopefully for the Celtics, the ultimate one up next.
It was about being his best every single day.
“He said, ‘I got you,’” Richard White said. “Well, we’ll see if he got me.”
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(Photo: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)