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TNT broadcaster Kevin Harlan’s patient approach served him well in never-to-be-forgotten Celtics moment

This was just the start of the frantic final seconds of Game 6, all of which play-by-play man Kevin Harlan had to describe to his TNT audience.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Kevin Harlan’s exuberance when he has the opportunity to make a memorable call in a memorable moment makes him a blast to listen to, no matter the sport or circumstance.

If his “with no regard for human life!” isn’t the best catchphrase/recurring call of any NBA broadcaster, it’s only because his “climbing the ladder and dropping the sledgehammer!” is also pretty great.

Which in a sense is why his call of the final seconds of the Celtics’ 104-103 victory Saturday in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on TNT was so impressive.

Harlan’s enthusiasm didn’t waver when Derrick White put back Marcus Smart’s miss in the final fraction of a second. But in the uncertainty of whether it would count (spoiler: it did), he made a veteran move, taking a measured, patient approach in those tense moments of chaos rather than attempting to make a highlight-reel call.


“Oh, I wanted to let it rip,’’ said Harlan by phone Sunday morning as he was waiting at the Miami airport for his flight to Boston. “I can probably get to that level when I need to at a certain time, when something incredible happens. That’s what you pray for. That’s what you’re banking on, a finish like that. Had there been a more definitive play, nobody would have been more excited than me. I like big plays, and I would have gone ballistic. But being disciplined was the first thing in my mind. I can be as quick-twitch as anybody, but your eyes can fool you.”

Kevin Harlan, middle, seen here during a 2022 NBA game, was on the call for the remarkable finish of Saturday's Celtics-Heat game.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Here’s how the call played out, with the Celtics down 1, three seconds left, and White inbounding the ball.

Stan Van Gundy, a color analyst on the broadcast along with Reggie Miller: “They’re going to have Max Strus face the floor here, but he’s got to be aware of Derrick White on the quick pass back.”


Harlan: “White will inbound … It’s off to Smart for the seventh game … No! … It might have been tipped in, but the buzzer sounded, the light was on, it will be reviewed.”

Van Gundy: “I don’t think he got that in in time.”

[Miller says something here, possibly about boxing out or the theme of his next Wendy’s commercial.]

Van Gundy, interrupting. “They’re saying on the floor, they’re counting it!”

Then, and only then, when the officials confirmed that White’s shot was good, did Harlan rev it up.

“The Celtics are going to win!,’’ he said. “There’s a Game 7 back in Boston!”

“When something is that close, my experience is: Don’t guess,’’ said Harlan. “I just thought, ‘Let’s make sure we keep the same tenor. We don’t know, it could go either way.’ And I think that’s what happened,” he said, before adding with a chuckle, “Although Stan may have jumped in there and given his opinion pretty quick.

“Listen, no one would have wanted a big call in a big game like that than me, but I had to be prudent, and experience taught me that when it’s that close, you just never know. I had times as a younger broadcaster when I thought a shot counted and it didn’t, and times when I thought a shot was good and it wasn’t.”

Celtics fans might recall that even the most trustworthy and experienced play-by-play voices botch a crucial call once in a while. The Celtics won Game 1 of their first-round playoff series with the Nets last season on a buzzer-beating, twisting layup by Jayson Tatum. ESPN’s Mike Breen, a Hall of Fame play-by-play voice, fumbled the call, first saying the Celtics went up by 1 (it was a game-winner), then saying the officials waved off the basket (they did not).


“I butchered the call as badly as I’ve ever butchered a big call at the end of the game,’’ said Breen earlier this year on JJ Redick’s podcast. It happens to the best of ‘em.

White’s season-saving play was reminiscent of so many savored moments in Boston sports history — Dave Roberts’s steal, Bird-to-DJ, and another that Harlan also happened to have called.

“It’s not as clear cut as Malcolm Butler’s interception on the goal line,’’ said Harlan, who had the national radio call of the then-obscure Patriots defensive back’s interception to secure a 28-24 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. “I saw the Butler pick because we were at that end of the end zone. His back was three-quarters to me. He was tilted just enough where I could see the 21 [Butler’s uniform number]. We had about as good a view as you could have had to what is one of the biggest plays in the history of the Super Bowl.”

White and Jaylen Brown celebrate at the end of Saturday's wild contest.Mike Ehrmann/Getty

His sightlines weren’t quite as clear from TNT’s courtside perch Saturday night. Harlan prefers to watch the action on the court rather than the television monitor in front of him. That left some uncertainty in that final second regarding how the final play unfolded.


“I saw Tatum first, on the other side. And here’s to me what was confusing when I then saw White push it back up and in. He had inbounded the ball, drifted toward the corner, and then crashed to the basket in less than three seconds. And I’m thinking, ‘That couldn’t have been White, was it? How did he get there? How did he have the time?’ It was just a remarkable play by him.”

Harlan, who said he had watched the replay only once as of Sunday morning, was satisfied with his call and the real-time, patient process that led him to it. Celtics fans, who surely had watched the replay way more than once by Sunday morning, appreciated it too since it came with the desired outcome.

But Heat fans. Well …

“Walking through the Miami airport, I’ve had three people yell at me already,’’ said Harlan, chuckling again. “ ‘You’re such a Celtics homer.’ I just start laughing, but they didn’t have a smile on their face when they said it. You can’t please everyone, I guess. You just do the best you can.”

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.