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Derrick White’s even-keeled play is required for the Spurs to upset the Nuggets

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To be their best, the Spurs will count on the young guard’s tone-setting defense and ability to counterbalance LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan on offense.

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets - Game One Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Derrick White has been many things to the Spurs in his breakout second season, filling in for the injured Dejounte Murray to become one of the team’s three most important players, working as a borderline-elite defender at the point of attack with an expansive offensive skillset. Happy to praise the 24-year-old, Gregg Popovich has regularly spoken or alluded to one particular quality of his above all others, an “even-keeled” nature that keeps him and the team steady on both ends of the floor. It’s a virtue for any player, but especially a young point guard thrust into a starting role for an organization that’s long relied on steadying presence or two.

The Spurs are now one game up on the 2-seed Denver Nuggets, and we’re starting to see how valuable that quality is. Well before coolly sealing the win with a backcourt pickpocketing of Murray, White left his imprints all over Game 1, most indelibly with an emphatic third-quarter dunk broke a 3.5-minute dry spell for San Antonio and helped swing momentum back their direction. He finished with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and 5 assists, and should continue to play a pivotal role the rest of the way, serving as the keel to a Spurs ship that’s trying to stay on course for a first-round upset.

White spoke to reporters on Friday before the team boarded its plane for Denver, touching on what it would be like to play in his home state and the preparation he was bringing to his first postseason as a true rotation player. I wanted to know about that prep work, and if the player, known for being a film study, would do much to scout himself to understand how his opponent might scheme against him.

“We try and watch film on the last couple of games,” he said. “See how they guarded me, see what they did against LA and DeMar. Just taking the little things they did in the past.”

It’s a relatively innocuous quote (par for the course for the soft-spoken White), but still revealing: White’s offensive role is tethered to how the Nuggets’ zero in on San Antonio’s two go-to scorers, DeRozan and Aldridge.

Here’s a possession from the regular season in which the Nuggets show multiple defenders at DeRozan, who ends up dribbling the ball off his man’s foot while looking to create on his own. White stands in the opposite corner.

In the Spurs’ read-and-react system, every guy playing off ball needs to be prepared to adjust, rotate and fill gaps as the possession develops. Expect White in particular to be more available and active in this series, and poised to provide primary creators like DeRozan, Aldridge and Gay outs whenever possible.

Here’s another possession from Saturday. DeRozan, who routinely attacks with the dual mindset of shooting or passing (once he draws enough of a crowd), is expecting White to rotate, receive the pass and make a play on the secondary penetration.

White should support Aldridge in a similar way, although he spent more time in Game 1 sharing the floor with DeRozan (28 minutes) than the Spurs big man (17). Here’s another set from earlier this season in which White delivers an entry pass to Aldridge and again rotates to the corner.

And here’s a set on Saturday, where White is ready to sink in and give Aldridge a kickout pass at the free throw line. It’s a spot that we’ve also seen DeRozan take after getting the ball to Aldridge in the post, hinting at a handful of counters the Spurs will have when Denver try and take away their pet plays. Here, White receives the ball and swings it over to DeRozan who also forces a defensive collapse and passes it back out to White, who is going to get plenty of looks at defenses at the tail end of the shot clock as this series continues.

Guys like White being effective playing off these sets matters, keeping the Nuggets defense honest and forcing them to stay locked in for all 24 seconds. If we see bounce-back games for DeRozan and/or Aldridge, that dynamic will be a reason why.