When the Atlanta Hawks acquired Dejounte Murray via trade last summer, the intention was to rejoin the Eastern Conference’s elite behind a prolific backcourt tandem.
Trae Young had earned his first All-NBA berth that spring. Murray made his first All-Star team months earlier. The 2021-22 campaign proved a lackluster encore to Atlanta’s invigorating 2020-21, but the hope was pairing two presumptive stars together would render it a blip.
After one regular season with Young and Murray sharing the helm, that has not occurred. Some of that speaks to their limitations. Some of it highlights poor front office decisions and faulty roster construction. Regardless, the Hawks sauntered to a 41-41 record and the East’s No. 7 seed for a Round 1 date with the Boston Celtics.
Through two losses against Boston, neither Young nor Murray have been the series’ foremost guard – a concerning development for an organization which envisioned its identity as holstering two star guards.
Instead, Derrick White has assumed that label to this point. The 28-year-old has held down a starting gig for much of the season for the Celtics and continues to do so in the playoffs.
White has totaled 50 points (75.8% true shooting), 12 rebounds, nine assists and five blocks over the first two games. He’s shooting 62.1% from the floor, 50.0% beyond the arc and 88.9% at the foul line. As he’s trampolined off a career-best regular season, nobody on either side’s outclassed him thus far.
In Game 1, the Hawks tried to stash Young on White to quell the damage of Young’s defensive woes. Boston’s other four options (Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford) were deemed more ill-fitting, so the headband-donning White was concluded as the suitable choice. White punished that decision with 24 points and seven assists.
Atlanta opened Game 2 with Murray on him instead, though there were still stretches of White versus Young, and White delivered again with 26 points.
One of the constants throughout White’s career has been mercurial scoring aggression, which manifested during his time with Boston post-trade in 2022. Both as a driver and shooter, it didn’t sandbag him this year and he’s maintained the requisite aggression in this series.
During the regular season, as he played an ancillary role alongside Tatum and Brown, 67% of White’s field goals were assisted. This round, as he sees mismatch after mismatch in single coverage, only 50% of his field goals are assisted. He averaged 9.2 shots per game in the regular season, yet has totaled 29 shots to open the playoffs.
He’s ripping off-the-bounce triples when Young, who ranked dead last in the NBA during the regular season with a minus-3.0 defensive DRIP, lollygags around a screen or Atlanta grants him too much real estate. His pull-up 3 frequency has ballooned from 10.2% in the regular season to 20.7% against the Hawks.
They’ve elected to prioritize other components of Boston’s top-five offense, so he’s shredding advantageous matchups.
White and the Celtics are exploiting Young’s defensive deficiencies in a smattering of ways: on-ball screen navigation, lack of size to influence jumpers, inability to recover after showing on picks, and inattentive off-ball positioning.
Knowing Atlanta prefers for Young to show rather than switch, Boston deploys White as a roller to create space inside when Young shows at the point of attack.
Given the Celtics often enjoy five-out alignments with Horford at center, which lures Clint Capela away from the hoop, there’s ample room to feast in the paint. If Horford is resting, Robert Williams III’s presence as an aerial threat has Hawks interior defenders conflicted about whether they should leave him to help on drivers, much to the benefit of someone like White.
He’s shooting 70.6% (12 for 17) on 2-pointers and assertively burrowing to the cup.
White is putting Young in the torture chamber on both ends. Really, this effervescent scoring is a major luxury. Boston doesn’t need it to win this series, but he’s making it that much easier. He’s a defensive ace who should, at a minimum, receive NBA All-Defensive team consideration.
He finished 12th in the league among those who played at least 1,000 minutes with a 1.2 defensive DRIP, a projection of a player’s contribution to his team’s plus-minus per 100 possessions on defense, and 31st in overall DRIP during the regular season. The Celtics also had a plus-9.1 net-rating differential when White was on the court compared to when he was off during the regular season – that was the highest mark of any player on the team.
White and Smart are the NBA’s preeminent defensive backcourt and White is taking the lead against the jittery, wily Young, who has tallied 40 points on 40 shots and 14 dimes to 10 turnovers through two games.
The Celtics’ switching and gap help are the headlining principles of Young’s struggles. But if someone has to win an Emmy for lead actor, White is the candidate. His blend of resolute discipline, wispy screen navigation and stoic body control are flummoxing Young’s pick-and-roll endeavors.
White shimmies over and ices screens, while Horford perfects the delicate balance of drop coverage. Together, they’re terrorizing him in ball screens.
And when Horford isn’t around, White is still giving Young the cold shoulder. Five swats in two games is gnarly stuff, even for the contemporary king of shot-blocking guards.
A year ago, Boston’s offense stalled and evaporated its championship hopes. White’s own struggles in the playoffs – 8.5 points on 49.4% true shooting, 31.3% from deep – factored in. Although his defense and connective passing were substantial boons, his timidity and ineffectiveness as a shooter were traffic cones stuck on the Celtics’ path toward a title.
This year, White’s unabashed and rolling from deep. He’s as good as he’s ever been offensively.
Atlanta will certainly not be the final barrier standing between Boston and the Larry O’Brien Trophy, yet these efforts against the Hawks summarize the very growth that could have White and the Celtics faring a bit differently at crucial junctures in the coming months.