MIAMI — The Miami Heat were two-tenths of a second away from the NBA Finals.
But in that precious time frame, Derrick White — who had served as the inbounds passer on the final possession for the Boston Celtics — managed to convert a putback just before the buzzer sounded, giving the visitors a heart-stopping 104-103 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, sending this series back to Boston for Game 7 on Memorial Day night.
The win moves Boston to within 48 minutes of becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
After Jimmy Butler buried three free throws with three seconds remaining to give Miami a 103-102 lead over Boston, Marcus Smart took the inbounds pass from White and fired off a turnaround jumper that looked to be Boston’s last hope of saving a season that appeared to be over several times in recent days.
But after Smart’s shot spun around the rim and out, White, who had raced to the corner after inbounding the ball to potentially get a pass, cut to the rim, rose up and grabbed Smart’s miss and laid it in, with the ball leaving his hand literally moments before the buzzer sounded.
After a quick review, the basket was counted by the officials, the Celtics celebrated on the court here at Kaseya Center and the sellout crowd left stunned after a staggering turn of events in the closing moments.
The Celtics had led 100-91 with 3 minutes, 4 seconds remaining after a pair of Jayson Tatum free throws. But in a scene eerily reminiscent of Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals here in Miami between these two teams, the Heat then stormed back. But unlike last season, when Butler missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with less than 20 seconds remaining, this time Butler — who finished the game with 24 points on 5-for-21 shooting but was dreadful most of the night — was fouled in the corner by Al Horford with three seconds remaining.
At that point, it seemed like the Celtics’ season was over. Instead, it was just setting the stage for White’s heroics a few moments later.
Saturday’s victory continued Boston’s historic ascent back into this series. The Celtics became the fourth team in NBA history to force a Game 7 after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, joining the Portland Trail Blazers against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2003 playoffs; 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.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla has now won five elimination games in these playoffs, tying him with the late Paul Westphal for the most elimination game victories by a first-time head coach in the postseason when Westphal led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals.
The eight wins Boston now has in elimination games over the past two playoffs are tied with the 1994-95 Houston Rockets for the most elimination game victories in consecutive playoffs.
Boston’s fifth straight triumph in a road elimination game also tied the Celtics for the record 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 1968-74, and the Phoenix Suns from the 1981-90 — did so over a several-year stretch, all five of Boston’s road playoff wins with their season on the line have all come in the last two playoffs.
The Celtics won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Milwaukee last year, followed by Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals here in Miami. This season, the Celtics won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Philadelphia, followed by Games 4 and 6 against the Heat in this series.
Meanwhile, the victory improved Boston’s overall road record over the past two playoffs to 14-7, with those 14 victories now tied for the second-most by any team over consecutive postseasons in NBA history.
The Los Angeles Lakers across the 2001 and ’02 playoffs hold the record with 15 victories, while the Cleveland Cavaliers won a combined 14 across the 2015-16 and 2016-17 postseasons, as did the Golden State Warriors over the 2018-19 playoffs and those mid-90s Rockets teams.
All of those teams have something in common: they won championships. With yet another victory Monday in Game 7, Boston will have a chance to do the same in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
And, thanks to White’s heroics, the Celtics will get a chance to make history.