MIAMI — A bounce changed history. The Celtics’ roster could’ve changed drastically if another fourth quarter collapse cost them their season. First, the Heat fans shrieked watching the shot tip up and in. An influx Celtics fans in the building held their breath, then roared after replay confirmed this group will play another game.
They remained in the stands celebrating like Boston won the east in Florida again. Max Strus slumped over immediately after the basket counted, hands on his knees.
“I can only imagine (what it’s going to be like in Boston),” Jaylen Brown said. “You can hear them here in Miami, so I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for Game 7.”
Camai Mazzulla and Allison Feaster hugged in the tunnel. Steph Pagliuca, nearby, asked if a heart specialist stood on hand. Marcus Smart, sitting in his locker with both feet in an ice bucket, couldn’t stop himself from standing, sitting again and reminding himself — one more. One more. Al Horford, to his right, suggested that watch a movie at the hotel together. Smart eventually rose, circling the room to embrace teammates. Awaiting the one who saved their season.
Derrick White needed to cut to make it happen, leveraging Strus‘ aggressive double team on Jayson Tatum as the Celtics in-bounded the ball with 3.0 seconds remaining and their season one moment from ending. If the ball didn’t spin out and land in his hands, propelling up and in, this story changes entirely. Instead, the potentially legendary put back gave the Celtics a chance to become the first team in NBA history overcome an 0-3 deficit — winning Game 6 104-103 over the Heat.
The Heat win and advance to the NBA Finals without it. Boston’s 10-point lead disappears in a familiar way, Tatum draining clock and launching ill-advised shots. Al Horford forced to take a long hook after the Celtics dwindled the shot clock to 12 seconds remaining before Tatum threw the entry pass. Tatum driving into a crowd and missing before Duncan Robinson shot a game-tying three — every Celtic watching as it narrowly missed falling. Boston missed nine straight shots, bricks, as Joe Mazzulla called them, before White’s put back.
“We missed some shots, we missed some free throws, I may have had a turnover,” Tatum said. “It seemed like everything that could go wrong was going wrong those last 2.5-3 minutes. We fouled a three-point shot, but there’s still three seconds left. You don’t have time to think about (the season ending), you’re just in the moment, next play.”
When Robinson tried another three for the win after the eighth Celtics brick, he missed and crumbled to his knees, hunched over on the floor. The Celtics didn’t collapse. The Heat did, becoming the fourth team in NBA history to lose a 3-0 lead, and providing as much proof as any that Boston, despite potentially fatal flaws, keeps itself in the mix to win a championship annually with this core.
With a win on Monday night, these Celtics players will prove they should remain together for as long as possible and reach a second consecutive NBA Finals. They’ll break through eventually, they showed. Even if it takes 11 maddening possessions.
“I was just stuck for a moment,” Smart told CLNS Media. “I shot it, it rimmed out, looked good, felt good and out of nowhere, D.White comes up with a rebound and throws it back in. It looks like it’s late, then you look at the replay and realize we just snuck another one … for us, it was getting in that hole, getting down 3-0, it really turned a lot of people on the outside world that was with us, and we felt that. We felt that. We came together and decided to stay the course. The guys that are in that locker room, those are the guys that you need to lean on, and nobody else, because nobody understands what we’re going through, nobody’s been here before, nobody’s doing what we’re doing, so just keep going and continuing to trust each other.”
Caleb Martin, who started in place of Kevin Love, Butler, Tatum and White played the entire first quarter of Saturday’s classic as both teams trade difficult shot attempts and drained them. The Heat benefited from another Martin heater, knocking down his first three looks, while Brown shot 5-for-5 in the first eight minutes to secure an early Celtics lead. Both teams switched heavily, Miami largely abandoning the zone and luring Boston into the mid-range area.
The Celtics packed the paint to deter Butler from pulling up for shots in that area, while Brown’s pair of downhill drives in transition and the half court, the latter followed by Robert Williams III, gave Boston a 24-20 lead. Tatum bumped Martin from the mid-range, leaned and scored, a move he later beat Butler on as the Celtics scorched to an 8-for-9 start on two-pointers outside of the restricted zone.
Miami owned the three-point line, starting 7-for-11 and constantly catching Boston over-committing or dying on down screens. White stood in the paint watching before Martin pulled up and drained a look from the left wing. Martin hit another three with Williams III shading away from him, and a Kyle Lowry put back further drove the Heat’s possession advantage on the glass to stay within five points through one quarter. Boston needed to build its own as the team eventually fell to 7-for-35 (20%) from three.
“That was always the question, what happens when we don’t shoot the ball well? The guys buying into those corner crashing opportunities is what gave us a chance,” Mazzulla said.
Miami twice stripped the ball from Brown as he drove to the lane in the second quarter, and Gabe Vincent poured in a pair of threes as the Celtics ignored or lost him behind the three-point line. The Heat cut Boston’s lead to two and the Celtics, particularly Brown, inexplicably ignored Vincent in his return from injury.
Both teams blew opportunities to close the half, Butler passing up shots twice against Horford before losing the ball driving against White and Tatum. Williams III landed his highest-flying lob of the season from Tatum, who caught an outlet following a Smart steal and pushed Boston ahead by 11 points. Erik Spoelstra fired off a flurry of timeouts and as they chased down misses inside, Adebayo flattened Butler falling on his back. Butler scored four baskets for the rest of the game, one on a 6-2 run into half where the Celtics awkwardly subbed big men.
“I don’t know how we’re gonna get this done, but we’re gonna go up there and get it done,” Spoelstra said. “We wish we could tip this thing off right now, right now, we want to tip this thing off and play another 48 minutes, but we’ll wait 48 hours and do this thing in Boston.”
Spoelstra risked another timeout to tag Brown with a fourth foul, failing as the officials called a play on and good basket instead of an offensive foul. Brown picked up his fourth shortly into the second half anyway, and his turnover on the possession before forced White to chase down and stop Butler on the run.
The Celtics managed a 10-10 tie with Brown out, and White and Williams III worked a 7-0 run when he returned to go back up double-digits. The mistakes flowed from there — Tatum throwing the ball away from the corner, Smart traveling, Williams III dropping a pass and nearly losing it, Brown driving and losing the ball again. Miami couldn’t make them pay, and finished the third quarter shooting 19%.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Brown said. “Our defense kept us in games, and defense is why there’s gonna be a Game 7.”
That changed when Butler and Robinson broke out the two-man game in the fourth. Their five straight points stole the lead until Brown’s finish inside and unsportsmanlike play when Adebayo grabbed the rim and fouled, leading to a four-point Celtics play. Horford erased his mistake, throwing a defensive rebound away, by blocking Adebayo. Tatum hit a rolling layup and White canned a pull-up three to erase Smart’s miscues, losing Robinson on cuts to the rim. Smart, flaring away from a double-team on Tatum, beat Robinson downhill to secure a 10-point lead late. They picked each other up.
It looked like the Celtics might avoid crunch time, torturous moments for the team in these playoffs. Boston improved 5-6, living to play another day even while falling to a -11.4 net rating in those situations, a concern entering Monday’s game. But they just keep finding a way.
“If you’ve been around us the whole season, you know how close this locker room is,” White said. “You see how we’re always joking around, everybody’s getting along and when times are tough, it’s easy to point the fingers, but we just stuck together, cared for each other and we got one more game to go.”