Playoff basketball is almost here, and the Boston Celtics will be taking on the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
While a lot of pundits were gearing up for a playoff rematch between Miami and Boston, Atlanta surprised the Heat in the Play-In Tournament and stole the No. 7 seed. With a 41-41 overall record, the Hawks have had a middling season, yet they still have one of the most talented point guards in the game in Trae Young.
Conversely, it was an impressive regular season for the Celtics. They earned the No. 2 seed with a 57-25 record and captured six more wins than last year — a season that saw them go all the way to the NBA Finals.
If the Celtics want another crack at a championship, they'll need to mirror what they did in the regular season during the playoffs. Everyone knows what the All-Star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is capable of, but who will be the unsung hero for the C's?
Celtics' biggest X-factor vs. Hawks: Derrick White
With most of the defensive attention on Tatum and Brown, Boston will need someone else to step up on offense when its stars are under fire. So far this season, guard Derrick White has played that role to perfection.
White missed zero games all season despite starting in 70 of them and averaging 28.3 minutes per outing. He's been Mr. Reliable all year, as he's put up 12.4 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game.
While those numbers might not jump out at you, they're pretty solid, especially when you take White's efficient 46% shooting from the field into account. Plus, the former San Antonio Spur has developed his 3-point shot, as he's shooting a career-best 38.1% from deep. If White is cashing in on open looks the C's will be in a great position to succeed.
So as an offensive threat, White cannot be ignored. However, the Hawks will be focused on Tatum and Brown primarily, giving the Colorado alum an opportunity to shine like he did in February:
Derrick White’s last 9 games
23 PTS, 10 AST
33 PTS, 10 AST
19 PTS, 6 REB
23 PTS, 7 AST, 7 REB
19 PTS, 5 REB
14 PTS, 10 REB
14 PTS, 5 REB
15 PTS, 4 AST
23 PTS, 6 AST
Most underrated player in the league? 🔥 pic.twitter.com/MXe0atzeAB
— Celtics Junkies (Fan Page) (@Celtics_Junkies) February 12, 2023
What White brings to the table isn't just on the offensive side of the ball, though. The 28-year-old established himself as a respectable two-way player this season by posting more blocks than any other guard in the NBA.
Derrick White blocked 76 shots this season (1st among guards)
Here’s all of them (1/3): pic.twitter.com/oQX2xXzu2w
— Pull up shoot (@NElGHT_) April 10, 2023
In the previous matchups between Boston and Atlanta this season, the Celtics went 3-0 and didn't let Young shoot over 44% from the field. White and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart were typically tasked with containing Young, and their defense on him will be critical in this series.
One key to slowing down the two-time All-Star is by keeping him off the free-throw line. The tricky point guard averages about eight to nine free throws a game and converts on 88.6% of them. He's an expert at drawing whistles, however, White is a disciplined player who knows how to defend without fouling.
Trae Young (563) has now passed Moses Malone (1988-89, 561) for the eighth-most made free throws in a Hawks single season. Only Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins have more made free throws in a single season.
— Hawks PR (@HawksPR) April 8, 2023
For his career, White averages about two fouls per game. If he can stay in front of Young without putting him on the line, the Celtics should be in a good spot.
Overall, White is a calming presence in Boston's rotation. He can settle them down with some 3-pointers and contribute on both ends of the floor. The Celtics will be a tough team to beat if he's hitting his stride alongside Tatum and Brown.
Yet, the C's cannot overlook the Hawks like Miami did. Atlanta has talent and Boston has had an irritating tendency of underestimating competition this season. The Celtics need to ignore the outside noise and remember anything can happen in a seven-game series.