PHILADELPHIA — The Boston Celtics don’t always need Derrick White at his most aggressive. He can help them even when he’s playing off the ball, sacrificing his personal statistics to make sure all of the team’s pieces fit together. He does the little stuff no matter how they use him on offense.
But sometimes the Celtics also need the big stuff from White. Every once in a while they need him to take charge.
“I didn’t necessarily say those words,” Joe Mazzulla said after his team’s 117-107 road win. “But he kind of knows that.”
The Celtics needed White in takeover mode after their lead dwindled to one point early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night. Without the injured Kristaps Porziņģis and Jaylen Brown, an opportunity emerged for White to take command. Over consecutive possessions, he drilled a 3-pointer, nailed a floater and found Luke Kornet with a nice pass that produced a pair of free throws. The Celtics stifled the Philadelphia 76ers’ run, regained control of the game and executed well enough down the stretch to pull away for a double-digit win.
“He drew up the first play for me and then after that he just kind of said ‘stay aggressive,’” said White. “I was able to get to my spots and make the right play. So I wouldn’t say my mindset changes that much (during moments he needs to control the offense). I just try to be aggressive like I always say and make the right play.”
Tatum scored 29 points, an average night for him, but the Celtics were still carried largely by the players who often sacrifice the most. White, who has done everything for the Celtics since they acquired him in February 2022, but doesn’t always have the ball in his hands. Jrue Holiday, who was an All-Star in Milwaukee last season before needing to embrace a smaller role in Boston. Al Horford, a five-time All-Star himself, who has been coming off the bench for the first time in his career. The trio combined for 59 points, 21 rebounds, 11 assists and seven blocks.
The Celtics roster fits partly because those three players don’t care when all the scoring options around them cut into their own touches and shot attempts. But on certain nights, like Wednesday, those players are all capable of shouldering more.
“I feel like we all, in our own ways, stepped up to the challenge,” Horford said.
He meant the whole roster, but nobody else took advantage of the opportunity like Horford, White and Holiday. Horford recognized what the Celtics needed once Porziņģis and Brown were ruled out shortly before the game.
“I think more than anything, it’s just showing how competitive I am,” Horford said. “We were down tonight a couple of guys. So having to step up and create a spark for our group I think was important for me and the group.”
The absence of two big scorers like Brown and Porziņģis would crush many teams. The Celtics had other accomplished veterans ready to fill in. White capitalized by scoring 27 points, one shy of his season high. Even as one of Boston’s point guards, he doesn’t usually receive the chance to run much pick-and-roll. He only uses 3.7 such possessions per game, according to Synergy Sports, which puts him in a tie for 64th league-wide. The Celtics still put the ball in his hands early in the fourth quarter. And White dissected Philadelphia. He drew a foul on Jaden Springer during Boston’s first possession of the period, sank a floater on the team’s second possession and found Kornet for a cutting dunk one minute later. Following a quick 76ers flurry that cut the Celtics’ advantage to one point, White resumed his clinic to push the lead back to five over the next minute.
“That’s the luxury that we have on our team,” Tatum said. “We have so many talented guys. I say it all the time, I tell D-White to be aggressive. When he’s being aggressive and assertive that’s just great for our team. And it shows. In those moments, he can take over for a stretch of a game where he gives us that lift. And he’s always going to make the right play. So he was big tonight.”
Huge. When Philadelphia pulled within one again several minutes later, a double-team by White and Tatum forced a Joel Embiid turnover. White secured possession of the ball, then found Tatum upcourt for an and-1 to push the lead to four. After a Horford block, White splashed a 3-pointer to put Boston ahead 105-98. In the fourth quarter alone, he finished with a team-high 14 points and three assists on 4-for-7 shooting.
“I thought because of the matchups and the lineups that we had — his pick-and-roll efficiency is sky-high, and when we can get him into those pick-and-rolls going to his right hand it’s a good effective play for us,” Mazzulla said. “He’s one of those guys that always shows up to make the right play, and I thought he made some big-time plays. I think it was 89-88 and I thought about calling a timeout, but he had the ball in his hands and I felt like if we could run a good set we could kind of calm it down with execution and he did that.”
The Celtics won’t always need that version of White. He can thrive in other roles. That’s part of his value. But when Boston needs more from him, he’s capable of giving it. The same goes for Holiday, who scored 13 of his 18 points during the first half. An All-Star last season in Milwaukee, he has attempted five fewer shots per 36 minutes during his brief time with the Celtics. He’s doing what he can to fit in, but can also handle more of a playmaking burden when necessary. It’s no coincidence he set a new season high in shot attempts (18) with Boston down two usual starters. He still did all the dirty work, guarding Embiid at times while racking up 10 rebounds, two blocks and one steal.
Boston’s role players can do more. In other situations, they would do more. White, Holiday and Horford give up pieces of their own games on most nights to help the team flow. Throughout the early season, their willingness to embrace their places in the hierarchy has been one of the Celtics’ defining traits. Teams with such talent only work if everyone buys in. As accomplished as those guys are, they have prioritized winning above all else.
“It starts with Al, right?” said Mazzulla. “We can’t have the type of culture and the type of team and the thing that we have without a guy like him.”
Horford has accepted his new role as sixth man. But with Porziņģis out, the 37-year-old big man stepped back into the starting lineup and delivered his best game of the young season. Thanks partly to Horford’s all-around production, the Celtics outscored Philadelphia by 25 points during Embiid’s 35 minutes. Horford blocked five shots, including two by Embiid. Horford made four 3-pointers, all in the second half. After one of them, he had some words for a fan in the front row. Philadelphia still treats Horford with hostility after the team failed to mesh during his short tenure there. And he usually seems to embrace the hate.
“There were some fans in the front row talking,” Horford said. “I just love it. When I hear that talking it just kind of gives you a little extra. So I appreciate that. They always do that in that corner here too. I don’t know what it is, it’s like they want to talk. And some people, they go off in a different way, but to me I just — I like it. So it was good to hit that shot and turn around and look at them and smile.”
The Celtics earned their smiles in Philadelphia. To walk away with a short-handed win, they held Embiid to 20 points, turned away a fourth-quarter run and closed out the 76ers with a stretch of high-level execution.
“I think it just speaks to the culture of our team and the organization,” Tatum said. “How it’s just like a next-man-up mentality. There’s going to be nights throughout the season or certain guys might be out. We don’t make excuses. We just find ways to try to win. I think how tough we are as a team and how hard we play, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every game regardless of who’s in and who’s out.”
(Top photo of Jayson Tatum congratulating Derrick White on a fourth-quarter 3-pointer: Bill Streicher / USA Today)