MIAMI — If the Celtics do pull off this miracle, if they do complete the comeback from down 3-0, Saturday will go down as the Derrick White play. He’ll join Dave Roberts, Bernie Carbo, and Malcolm Butler as those who never have to buy another beer in Boston. He’ll be cherished by the faithful who rightfully felt their team was cooked after Jimmy Butler hit three free throws to put the Miami Heat ahead 1 with three seconds left.
The Celtics were scattered and reeling. They had blown a 10-point lead with 3:41 left, stymied again by Miami’s zone defense. Butler, who looked physically spent for the first 45 minutes, transformed into the best player on the floor and brought his team back.
The NBA was preparing for this Miami rally. They were preparing for a post-game ceremony to present the Eastern Conference championship and Butler with the Larry Bird trophy as MVP.
There was just one chance, and to no one’s surprise, Marcus Smart got the inbounds pass and released a desperation shot. White was the passer, and when he saw Smart was going to release the shot, he darted past a confused Max Strus, caught the ball off the rim, and released it with 0.2 seconds left.
The crowd at Kaseya Center initially believed the shot came after the buzzer. The celebration had begun. But it was just another chapter in the rich playoff history of the Celtics franchise.
White deserves his own chapter for making a miracle play.
“I’m just glad we won. However we’ve got to get it done, we got it done,” White said. “Smart flashed, hit him, and there really was nobody on me, so I just spaced to the corner, and when he shot it just tried to crash. Ball came to me, I made the shot. That’s what I saw.
“But this is special. This is the Playoffs. Game 6, backs against the wall. This is definitely special.”
The Celtics’ 104-103 win sends this series back to Boston for a Game 7. They are just the fourth team to trail 3-0 and force a seventh game, and this Game 6 was the most unlikely of endings, especially considering how Boston nearly botched it with horrible late-game execution.
Missed free throws, and a terrible foul by Al Horford followed by an even worse challenge by coach Joe Mazzulla set up the final scenario. The Celtics were so close to flying back to Boston having again lost another game they should have won. So close to seeing such an emotionally taxing season end on a sour note.
Instead, those mishaps and setbacks are just footnotes. They wonderfully set up the final scene, where the unsung White — most recently the butt of jokes from the TNT crew because of his hairline — swooped in for the game-saving play.
“At the end of the games like that, our guys talk about just crashing at the end of the game, giving it a chance, and D-White made a great play,” Mazzulla said. “Smart made a great play getting open to get a shot off, and D-White made a great play.”
After the 26-point Game 3 loss, this team descended to new depths. They were a laughingstock around the NBA because they were being outworked, outhustled, outplayed, and out-desired by a less talented team. They were considered a bunch of frontrunners who couldn’t deal with prosperity and finally clowned around too much with a worthy opponent.
The past six days have seen a transformation. The Celtics dominated the past three games, and even on Saturday, when they were an abysmal 7 for 35 from the 3-point line — their worst of the season — they led most of the way until that final sequence, when Butler raised on a 3-pointer and was slapped on the arm by Horford.
Mazzulla made the heinous error of challenging the play when officials called it a two-shot foul. (The Celtics were up 2.) After the review, they ruled Butler was actually attempting a 3-pointer. And typical of playoff Butler, he calmly sank the free throws.
But what looked to be an epic collapse turned into the latest chronicle in Boston sports history. White played until the final second. He didn’t give up when the Celtics looked completely done, comeback wasted, series over, season over.
The Heat fans stood silent for several moments after the game, in total disbelief. Meanwhile, a group of Celtics fans gathered near the TNT booth when Jaylen Brown was being interviewed and began chanting, “Let’s Go Celtics!” Brown walked off the podium and started high-fiving fans.
The pride and spirit is very much alive.
“It gives you a supreme boost in confidence, man,” Brown said. “It doesn’t get too much worse than being down 0-3. We feel like we’ve been to hell and back. We feel like we can face any adversity that gets thrown at us in the duration of the game or the duration of the season or in the postseason. It all means nothing if we don’t come out and give our best effort on our home floor on Monday night.
“In all honesty [on the White shot], at that point, I’m in full prayer mode. Whatever prayer I got, whatever dua I got, reciting it over and over in my head.
“I knew our season was on the brink, and I’m just grateful to God that we was able to get the win.”
One more win before history is made, but Game 6 is history on its own thanks to Derrick White.
Read more about Game 6
Instant analysis: How the Celtics survived a massive Heat rally
Celtics Notebook: Malcolm Brogdon sidelined for Game 6