White’s buzzer-beater wins Game 6 for Celtics, forces Game 7

MIAMI — The Heat were less than a second away from the NBA Finals.

But with a precious two-tenths of a second remaining, Derrick White — who had served as the inbounds passer on the final possession for the Boston Celtics — managed to release a putback of a Marcus Smart missed jumper that fell through the net just as the buzzer sounded, giving the Celtics a heart-stopping 104-103 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

It sends this series back to Boston for Game 7 on Memorial Day night and moves the Celtics one win away from becoming the first NBA team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit

“Derrick White, like a flash of lightning, just came out of nowhere and saved the day, man,” teammate Jaylen Brown said.

“It was just an incredible play.”

It was an incredible series of moments — all of which were eerily similar to the way Game 7 of this same matchup on this same court played out almost exactly one year earlier.

Like in that 2022 game, Boston controlled the proceedings throughout. And like in that game, the Celtics had a sizable lead — nine points, to be exact — when Jayson Tatum hit a couple of free throws to make it 100-91 with 3 minutes, 4 seconds to go.

And like in that game, Boston gave it all back.

“I don’t know if poise is a great word to use with those last four minutes,” White would say later with a smile, “but we found a way to win.”

But only just. On a night when the Celtics made fewer 3s (7) and shot a worse percentage (20%) than they had in any regular-season or playoff game this campaign, it also had been a truly horrendous night for Butler. But then he scored the final 10 points of the contest for the Heat over a two-minute stretch: hitting a 3-pointer, followed by going 1-for-2 at the line, converting an and-1 bucket and, with three seconds to go, drawing a foul on Al Horford in the corner on a 3 and — after a long review — knocking down all three free throws.

There was a long review because Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla chose to challenge the foul on Horford. But while the call wasn’t reversed, the challenge was crucial in another respect: It bought Boston time.

An extra nine-tenths of a second, to be exact.

Originally, referee Josh Tiven had called a foul with 2.1 seconds remaining. But while the officials would have reviewed whether the shot was a 2-pointer or a 3, they could only review the time on a challenge.

And because they did, the Celtics had some extra time to work with.

As it turned out, they needed every last bit of it.

“I’m still in disbelief,” Tatum said. “That s— was crazy.”

That, specifically, was White’s putback, which came after he inbounded the ball to Smart on a scramble. After Boston had failed to get a shot up in the final seconds of a loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Philadelphia 76ers, Smart said he was determined to make sure he got a shot up on the rim in that moment.

But when Smart’s attempt rolled around the rim and fell off, it landed in White’s waiting hands for the game winner.

“It don’t do no good to stand in the corner there, whether he makes it or not,” White said, “so I just was crashing the glass, and it came right to me.”

Saturday’s victory continued Boston’s remarkable ascent back into this series. The Celtics became the fourth NBA team to force a Game 7 after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-7 series, joining the Portland Trail Blazers against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2003 playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks; the Denver Nuggets against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals in 1994; and the New York Knicks against the Rochester Royals in the 1951 NBA Finals.

The Celtics, however, will be the first of those teams to host Game 7 after falling behind 3-0.

Mazzulla has now won five elimination games in these playoffs, tying him with the late Paul Westphal for the most such victories by a first-time head coach in the postseason, after Westphal led the Phoenix Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals.

The eight wins Boston now has in elimination games over the past two postseasons are tied with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995 for the most such victories in consecutive years.

Boston’s fifth straight triumph in a road elimination game also tied the Celtics for most consecutive wins in those situations. What makes it all the more remarkable is that while the two previous record holders — the Celtics from 1968 to 1974 and the Suns from the 1981 to 1990 — did so over a several-year stretch, all five of Boston’s consecutive away wins with its season on the line have come in the past two postseasons:

The Celtics won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Milwaukee Bucks last year, followed by Game 7 of the conference finals here in Miami. This season, the Celtics won Game 6 of the conference semifinals in Philadelphia, followed by Games 4 and 6 at the Heat in this series.

Meanwhile, the victory improved Boston’s overall road record during the past two postseasons to 14-7, with those 14 away wins now tied for the second most by any team over consecutive years.

The Los Angeles Lakers across the 2001 and 2002 playoffs hold the record with 15 victories, while the Cleveland Cavaliers won a combined 14 during the 2016 and 2017 postseasons, as did the Golden State Warriors over the 2018 and 2019 playoffs and those mid-1990s Rockets teams.

All four of those teams have something in common: They won championships. With yet another victory on Monday in Game 7, Boston will have a chance to do the same in the NBA Finals against the Nuggets.

And thanks to White’s heroics, the Celtics will get a chance to make history.

“I’ve never been so excited,” Tatum said, “to go back to Boston in my life.”

Heat’s Jimmy Butler undeterred: ‘I know that we will do it’

MIAMI — Less than a second away from their second trip to the NBA Finals in four seasons, Miami Heat players and fans stood in collective shock after Boston Celtics guard Derrick White tipped in the go-ahead bucket at the buzzer in a stunning 104-103 loss Saturday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The shot forced Game 7 on Monday and pushed the Celtics to within one victory of becoming the first NBA team to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.

Despite the emotions of the loss, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and star forward Jimmy Butler were defiant in the belief that they could still find a way to win the biggest game of the season on Monday night.

Spoelstra called the final sequence a “shame” but said he has “no regrets.”

“This is the way this season has been,” he said. “This is one hell of a series. At this time right now, I don’t know how we are going to get this done, but we are going up there and get it done. And that’s what the next 48 hours is about.”

Butler, who hit three clutch free throws with three seconds left to give the Heat a 103-102 lead, said he remains confident the Heat will find a way to win Game 7, despite the fact that they’ve now dropped three straight, including being on the wrong end of one of the wildest finishes on Saturday night.

“[That’s] basketball for you, basketball at its finest — very, very, very entertaining,” Butler said. “But that’s good basketball. I think, I believe, as we all do, like you’re going to get the same test until you pass it, I swear. We were in this same position last year. We can do it. I know that we will do it. We’ve got to go on the road and win in a very, very, very tough environment.”

It’s the same tone Butler tried to set heading into Games 5 and 6, exuding belief that the Heat would find a way to close out the series. He acknowledged frustration, though, over his 5-for-21 shooting night, saying the Heat wouldn’t have been in position to lose on a buzzer-beater if he had been “better from jump street.”

“Everything that happened tonight, if I don’t go 5-for-21 and turn the ball over and all of this good stuff, it’s a different story,” he said. “I’ve got on a different hat up here and we’re getting ready to go to the Finals.”

The Heat’s postgame locker room Saturday night was the quietest it has been in recent memory, until guard Gabe Vincent turned on a song from his phone — “Life Goes On” by Ed Sheeran. The Heat are trying to hold the same mantra as they face a Celtics team that has found its confidence again over the past week and appears even stronger now, given how the final seconds played out in Game 6.

“It’s almost storybook,” Vincent said. “It’s almost like it’s supposed to be this way. But you know, go to Boston and get a win.”

The Heat are buoyed by the fact that they’ve played in several close games all season and have withstood every challenge that brought them to this point. Miami center Bam Adebayo, who struggled through a 4 for 16 shooting performance on Saturday, was quick with a response when asked how the Heat can emotionally recover from the defeat.

“You go in to Boston and you get you one,” he said.

The Heat also are trying to generate hope from the idea that they have always played better when they’ve made things more difficult on themselves throughout this campaign. Getting over this type of letdown, however, would be one of the biggest accomplishments of Spoelstra’s Hall of Fame-worthy career.

He set the tenor for his group while sitting behind the postgame podium late Saturday night.

“There’s been nothing easy about this season for our group,” Spoelstra said. “And so we just have to do it the hard way. That’s just the way it’s got to be for our group.

“We wish we would tip this thing off right now. Right now, let’s tip this thing off, and let’s play another 48 minutes. But we’ll wait 48 hours and do this thing in Boston.”