For three quarters of Monday’s game, Coby White was the best player on the court at Footprint Center.
That’s a feat anywhere in the league, but especially in Phoenix, where White was knocking shoulders with Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker alongside his teammate, DeMar DeRozan. But it’s not hyperbole.
For 36 minutes, White was undeniable. He fired off deep-range 3-pointers, wove through traffic to slip passes to his teammates, crunched through contact to make shots around the rim. White scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, doing his most to counter an overwhelming onslaught from Durant.
But in the final two minutes, White wasn’t the player the Bulls entrusted with game-winning shots. That duty still fell to DeRozan, who took four of Chicago’s five shots in the last 128 seconds of a 115-113 loss.
The final two minutes of Monday’s game raised an important question: At what point will White have earned the right to be the player with the ball in his hands while the final seconds rattle off the clock?
For DeRozan, the answer is simple: White has already earned it.
“Without a doubt,” DeRozan said. “If he got it rolling or even if he looked at me and said he wanted it, wouldn’t be no problem. That’s how much trust we got in him.”
Monday’s game was not lost in clutch time. The Bulls led by 23 in the third quarter, then deflated under the pressure of a Suns run. DeRozan wasn’t the only player the Bulls went to for the potential equalizer — the first play was drawn up to give Patrick Williams a lob at the basket for a dunk, capitalizing on the fact that the Bulls only had 1.6 seconds to work with on the clock.
And the final made shot of the game was more of a reflection of Durant’s clutch brilliance than any defensive lapse or poor decision-making by the Bulls.
Still, this is an important dynamic to keep redefining as the Bulls move forward. The identity of this team has shifted around White, whose breakout season has created a clear path for how the future can and should look in Chicago. But in those clutch moments, it seems veteran experience still wins out.
The Bulls have played more clutch minutes than most other teams this season — 23 of their games have ended with an average of 4.6 minutes spent in the clutch. The team has fared well in these moments, going 13-10 in games that ended in clutch time while shooting 48.9% from the field.
Not every one of those games came down to a buzzer-beater, but it gives a broad sample of how the Bulls like to approach these moments. Sometimes the ball goes elsewhere — for instance, Alex Caruso has gotten a crack at several buzzer-beaters to win games or send them into overtime. But understandably, the Bulls are always quick to return to DeRozan.
This would be true on almost any team. DeRozan is one of the most clutch active players in the NBA. He ranks among the top five currently active players in career clutch shooting behind Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. This season, he’s made the fourth-highest number of field goals in clutch time this season (25) on 51% shooting.
With this body of work, it’s hard to ever argue DeRozan shouldn’t have the ball in his hands for a game-winner. But if the Bulls continue investing in a future anchored around White, they’ll likely begin entrusting him with more of these moments.
How do the Bulls get there?
White has taken 32 shots in clutch time across 23 games this season. He trails behind only DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević in clutch attempts. And while his 3-point shooting has dipped in these moments this season — going 5-for-17 (29.4%) from 3-point range — White is consistent from the field in the clutch, shooting 50%.
White has taken big shots in big moments, but it’s often in the absence of his veteran teammates — for instance, burying 3-pointers in clutch time and overtime in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks in November while both LaVine and DeRozan were sidelined.
DeRozan noted White isn’t afraid to use his voice throughout the final minutes, asking Donovan to change one of the final plays in Monday’s loss to set up a look that he preferred.
“He kind of changed the play and Coby came down, was aggressive and made something out of it,” DeRozan said. “That’s the trust we’ve got in him, whatever it is, if it’s taking the last shot or running the play, whatever it may be.”
With this dynamic already established, it appears these moments are White’s for the taking. His clutch shooting percentage is almost identical to DeRozan and he’s only grown more confident as the season has progressed, both from behind the arc and in his ability to blow by defenders to get to the rim.
For White to take the next step in his development, he’ll need to begin honing himself in these moments with the game on the line. And DeRozan said White just has to do one thing to make this happen: Ask for the ball.