Marcus Mason knew when Derrick White bobbed up the court motioning that he tipped-in Marcus Smart’s three-point attempt on-time to win Game 6 against the Heat.
White reacted the same way, adamant when he believes himself correct, whether playing board games, trivia, or on the floor. Mason — White’s trainer since seventh grade — usually found White proven correct. After officials confirmed the good basket in Miami, White, Mason and White’s father Richard all thought the same thing.
“When everybody was celebrating Game 6 and the tip-in, I was saying, ‘hey, you got a Game 7 coming,'” Mason told CLNS Media last week. “That’s kind of been our thing throughout the course of his career is never get too high, never get too low, stay even-keeled and continue to work.”
White scored 18 points stepping into a scoring role in the second half of Game 7 after Jayson Tatum went down on the first play and Jaylen Brown struggled for much of the night. The 19-point loss and exit short of the Finals series White and his Celtics teammates reached the year before inspired a significant change, Boston trading Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porziņģis, which thrust White into the full-time point guard role. While Mason and White don’t view the shift as a significant one, they focused on White adding muscle this summer to make up for the brute force Smart and teammate Grant Williams left behind defensively.
Jimmy Butler scored 40 points against White in the east finals across 211 possessions that ended with a Butler shot, assist, free throws or turnover, finishing 16-for-39 from the field and scoring 91 points for the Heat, recording seven assists. White blocked Butler four times, but unlike his successful stint early in the postseason against Trae Young, Mason saw stronger scorers body White later in the postseason.
“One of our number one goals coming into this summer was for him to gain more upper body strength,” Mason told CLNS Media. “For some people, that might not be the perfect answer offensively, but I felt like with his defensive versatility…you go from some nights guarding Trae Young, Kyrie to all of a sudden Jimmy, James Harden. I really wanted him to be stronger in that upper body to be able to take on some of the contact that I saw him receive in the playoffs. So I think his upper body strength not only will help him on defense, but also also on offense, in pick and roll situations, getting downhill a little bit more and being able to make plays for his teammates.”
White took two weeks off following the loss, spending time with his young son Hendrix while he and wife Hannah await a second child. Mason soon tested his physical levels, including bench press and vertical as they formulated a plan to improve his defensive versatility beyond what propelled him to All-NBA status. Around the beginning of July, they returned to the court for 5-6 days of work after spending the previous two weeks on lifting, core strength and mobility. Mason’s plan aimed to prepare White to play up to 110 games on a championship run.
Only 10 players appeared in all 82 regular season games in 2022-23, including White, who expects to play more minutes and do the same after averaging 28.3 MPG last year. A back court log jam left White on the bench in crunch time in numerous games last year, Joe Mazzulla admitting regret over making that choice when White emerged as the better two-way player than Smart and Malcolm Brogdon late last season.
White compared favorably to Smart as a pick-and-roll producer (0.94 points per possession), driver and far surpassed Smart’s shooting ability. While his role and ball time will remain similar, Mason and White worked on pick-and-roll, drew back to White’s experience playing with LaMarcus Aldridge in setting up Porziņģis and acknowledged White’s voice will need to grow.
“Derrick has to be a better leader, better communicator, but I think J.T. is gonna be better, J.B. is gonna be better,” Mason said. “Marcus Smart is great and and I love Smart, but sometimes, if I’m the only person talking in the room, that doesn’t mean everyone else in the room can’t talk. It just means they may not have the opportunity or feel that it’s their moment to talk. So even with Marcus’ absence, everybody, as a collective unit, is gonna pick up the vocal piece, and Al (Horford) is still there. Al’s phenomenal leader. Derrick raves about Al’s leadership, so they’ll be OK in that regard.”
Assistant coach Sam Cassell projects to become one of the team’s louder and more experienced figures. Cassell traveled to Colorado to train with Mason and White earlier this summer, discussing the Celtics’ plans on offense and walking White through scenarios he’ll oversee as point guard. Mason remembered Cassell getting down to work immediately, meshing well with White as they walked through late game plays, where to find teammates and what kind of coaching White prefers. Several Celtics discussed how much they missed the former player perspective Damon Stoudamire provided to last year’s staff that Cassell now fills.
Cassell said at Summer League he wanted to help the Celtics enjoy the process of becoming champions and reduce the pressure they play with while understanding what commitment to that goal can earn them for the rest of their lives, the same way his 2008 team became immortalized. White knows how to run an offense, helping DeMar DeRozan lead one of the league’s best pick-and-roll offenses in 2019. Boston’s offense comes packed with talent and Mason challenged White with an easily attainable goal — average the most assists per game of his career this season. Comfort and tweaks to his shot produced a career year behind the line (39.7%).
Their work this summer, including long-running treks up thousands of steps in Colorado’s mountains, aim to help White play longer, stronger and deeper into the postseason. Fans may notice his haircut first, but family life, higher stakes and a new role pushed White to enter this season stronger in less visible ways, more confident and shouldering more responsibility as a leader.
“He’s a grown man and that’s what he wanted to do,” Mason said of White’s haircut. “I like the look … it’s good. I think it’s gonna be a good thing, I don’t think hair makes shots. I’m all into making shots and playing defense. I’m not a how you look type of guy.”