“Oh my God, it was so close!” Griffin exclaimed and then rushed across the room to Derrick White‘s locker.
“Let me see,” White said, looking closely at the replay of one of the top moments of his career for the first time, trailing the millions across the globe who were already gawking at it.
A few minutes earlier, White etched his name into the NBA’s annals, tipping in teammate Marcus Smart‘s miss to beat the horn for the difference in a 104-103 Boston Celtics‘ Game 6 victory over the Miami Heat to improbably even the Eastern Conference finals at 3-3.
It was the split second that might eventually get its own wall in the Hall of Fame. This was a motherlode of history-type moment.
And it denied the Heat a trip to the Finals. For now, of course.
White’s shot opened the chance for the Celtics to become the first NBA team to rally back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series.
It was just the second time in league history a buzzer-beater happened with a team facing elimination at the moment after Michael Jordan’s legendary “The Shot” in 1989 to lift the Chicago Bulls over the Cleveland Cavaliers in their first-round series.
With Boston’s victory Saturday night, the Celtics won their fifth road elimination game in the past two postseasons, not quite the iconic Bill Russell’s 10-0 record in Game 7s, but this is Page 1 Celtics history material here.
“I thought it was short,” White said as he watched the replay again, standing at his locker with teammates gathering around him.
That Horford foul seemed crushing; it led to three free throws and the clock showed 2.1 seconds. Butler made all three of them and it gave the Heat the lead. But referees wouldn’t have been able to add the 0.9 seconds back unless Boston had requested the review under league rules.
Before all the buzz in the locker room, Mazzulla brought them into a huddle after they returned from the floor. The point about not having won anything yet was made.
Focus must be kept. Game 6 heroics fade if there’s a Game 7 letdown.
OK, but what about what they had all just experienced? This was one of those locker room moments players yearn for, sometimes wait years for and it never comes. But on this night in South Florida, these Celtics players were enjoying their moment.
White watched the replay again on a phone and looked at the ground he’d covered. He’d inbounded the ball to Smart and then sprinted down the sideline. When Smart launched it, White was 20 feet away, standing near the corner around the 3-point line.
By the time the ball spun out, White had somehow gotten himself to the rim.
“That’s because he’s the fastest guy in the league,” teammate Grant Williams declared after watching how the play unfolded. “And the best looking. With the best hair!”
The last comment — White has one of the most commented-on hair situations in the NBA — drew a smile from White.
“I mean, it don’t do no good to stand in the corner there,” White said later in the Celtics’ postgame news conference. “Whether he makes it or not, so I just was crashing the glass, and it came right to me.”
“I’m still, like, in disbelief. That s— was crazy,” said Jayson Tatum, who scored 25 of his 31 points in the first half to give the Celtics a chance with their 3-point shooting failing them (7-for-35 for a 20% clip).
“That felt like the longest 10 seconds ever waiting for confirmation if he made it or not,” Tatum said.
There were enough slices in time over the game’s frenetic last few minutes that a documentary could be made about the plays, moments and misses — and perhaps someday there will be one.
Just to recap:
— Butler had one of the most clutch two minutes of his career, scoring 10 points to lead what was so close to a comeback for the ages. When he made a preposterous 3-pointer with 2:04 left, he was 3-of-19 shooting for the game. He made another basket and five vital free throws, and all but had the Larry Bird Trophy for conference finals MVP with his name already etched on it.
— The Celtics, who had their worst 3-point shooting game of the season, seized up on offense down the stretch. Frozen by the Heat zone and with Mazzulla refusing to call timeouts — an extremely fortuitous decision in the end because he used two vital ones in the last three seconds — they had repeated awful possessions in what could have been a horrific collapse. Boston had led by nine with three minutes to play.
— Horford’s foul on Butler had an ironic twist in that last season, in Game 7 of the East finals, Horford got his hand up to defend Butler’s would-be game winner at the same basket. This time Butler got the better of him, drawing the foul but the outcome ended up the same.
— Heat forward Max Strus might be getting some blame for not boxing out White at the buzzer, but he’d helped the Heat deny both Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the first two options on the play, to force the ball to Smart, who missed.
— Smart might’ve seemed like he shot the ball too quickly with three seconds left in the game. But in the last round against the Philadelphia 76ers, he made a potential buzzer-beater to win, only to have it fall in a split second late. With that in his mind, he said, he rushed to get the shot up … and thereby saved time for White to get to the rim for the putback.
— The referees adding 0.9 seconds to the clock might’ve seemed a bit generous, especially to Heat fans, though replays do indicate Horford first made contact with Butler with exactly 3.0 seconds left. But for the conspiracy theorists, Butler might’ve committed a violation in getting space to take the shot, which will be one of the many things that will be interesting on the last two minute report.
Having seen all that, Mazzulla was asked what went through his mind in the end.