MIAMI — Jayson Tatum tried to walk us through it. He sat on a podium Saturday night in the bowels of Kaseya Center, and he did his best to offer a chapter-and-verse recollection of what, from his perspective, transpired in the fastest three seconds of his life.
It’s tough to give the straight story, though, when you just can’t stop smiling.
“Oooh-whee. Oh, my God,” Tatum said, rubbing his forehead and temples. “That was incredible.”
It had been just over an hour since he'd had a front-row seat to watch Derrick White beat the fourth-quarter buzzer with a game-winning tip-in — a soaring offensive rebound of Marcus Smart's missed 3-pointer that snatched Game 6 from Miami's grasp, made the Celtics just the fourth team in NBA history to come back from 3-0 down to force a Game 7, and gives Boston the chance to become the first team ever to complete the comeback when they take the court at TD Garden on Monday night. That wasn't quite enough time to get his arms around it all.
"Man, we drew up a play," he continued, trying his best to answer the pressing question of what the hell just happened. "They kind of took away that — I was trying to get the ball. Jimmy [Butler] and [Max] Strus jumped out to me, Smart came and shot it, and we just crashed the glass. Everything was like a blur after that. D-White tipped it in, but that felt like the longest 10 seconds ever, waiting for confirmation if he made it or not."
OK, that’s enough sober recounting, Jayson. Back to Big Feelings.
“I'm still, like, in disbelief,” said Tatum, who scored a game-high 31 points to go with 12 rebounds, five assists, two blocks, a steal and some stellar defense on Butler in the 104-103 Game 6 win. “That s*** was crazy.”
That’s also how it felt on the Heat bench, where Erik Spoelstra watched as the defensive strategy he drew up — Strus turning his back to the inbounding White in favor of being able to jump out to help Butler deny Tatum a chance to catch and shoot, and forcing the ball to anyone else — worked. Until, y’know, it didn’t.
“Ideally, you would think, you hope you do the right things,” Spoelstra said. “That thing just bounced a different way. That's the only place [the ball] could have bounced to hurt us. I thought we had a lot of things covered on that play, and sometimes things just don't break your way. I don't think there's any regrets on that. It's just a shame.”
No regrets, perhaps, but maybe just a tinge of sorrow that carried over to the Miami locker room. We've heard plenty about how Butler serves as the Heat's DJ, curating the vibe after wins and losses alike. Before Butler came into the locker room, though, it was guard Gabe Vincent — who'd missed Game 5 with a sprained left ankle before resolving to give it a go on Saturday and playing 41 minutes in his return — who queued up a tune while he got dressed. His choice? "Life Goes On" by Ed Sheeran.
Asked if the song had any particular message, Vincent paused before answering, "I'm going to say no, just because I feel like that has a negative connotation. We're looking forward. We're a group of competitors, and you couldn't ask for anything more." Even so: On a night where you had a chance to go to the NBA Finals and lose by one at the buzzer, it's kind of hard not to read into the choice of a song that opens with the lyrics, "It hit like a train, I ran out of words / I got nothing to say, everything hurts."
The Smart-miss bounce and White's subsequent pounce saved a Celtics team that had controlled most of Game 6 and led by 10 with 4:55 to go, only to tighten up late and concede a 15-4 Heat run. That stretch saw the Celtics miss 9-of-10 field-goal attempts and send the continually struggling Butler to the line 10 times — the final three of which came after Al Horford fouled Butler on a desperation 3-point attempt in the right corner, putting Miami up 103-102.
“In all honesty, at that point, I'm in full prayer mode,” said Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds (including five on the offensive glass), three rebounds and two steals. “Whatever prayer I got, whatever dua I got, reciting it over and over in my head. I knew our season was on the brink.”
It initially appeared that Horford fouled Butler with 2.1 seconds remaining. After an official review to determine whether Butler’s feet were behind the 3-point arc, though, the clock was reset to 3.0 seconds, giving Boston a few extra tenths of a tick to work with. White, who had drifted to the left corner after inbounding the ball when he realized he wasn’t being defended, ensured they made the most of them.
“I mean, it don't do no good to stand in the corner there, whether [Smart] makes it or not,” said White, who continued his strong all-around series with 11 points, six assists, four rebounds, three blocks and a steal. “So I just was crashing the glass. And it came right to me.”
White took advantage of that good fortune, making an incredible play that capped a game that was, on multiple fronts, damn near unbelievable.
Throughout this series, 3-point shooting has proven a bellwether. Miami made more threes than Boston in Games 1 and 3, and shot a higher percentage from deep in Game 2; it won all three games. The Celtics dominated from distance in Games 4 and 5; they won both. In Game 6, though, the Heat made 14 triples to Boston’s seven, all by Smart and White, and shot 46.7% from three, compared to just 20% for the C’s … and still lost. (Boston was still able to tilt the math in part by shooting a scorching 27-for-43, 62.8%, on 2-point shots; Tatum and Brown, in particular, torched Miami in the midrange, combining to drill 10 of 13 shots between the restricted area and the arc.)
Another key differentiator through five games? Turnovers. Boston committed more than Miami in the first three games and lost all of them; when those conditions flipped in Games 4 and 5, so did the result. And yet, on a night where the Heat coughed it up just five times compared to Boston’s 12, they still came up just short.
Kevin Love, whom Boston had poked and prodded in the pick-and-roll, went to the bench, replaced by Caleb Martin, who’d been sensational all series long off the bench and who offered more athleticism, defensive versatility and off-the-dribble juice off the rip. The move paid off: Martin scored 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting, pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds and battled on defense against Tatum.
Backup center Cody Zeller got only two minutes and 21 seconds of second-quarter burn, during which Boston carved him up in space and outscored the Heat by seven points. He wouldn’t see the court again, as Spoelstra cut his rotation to the bone, trying to eliminate the weaker points that the Celtics could target and relying on just seven players. (With Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by a forearm injury, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla did the same; outside of a one-minute, 50-second cameo by Sam Hauser, with Boston’s season on the line, he only went seven-deep.)
You can only limit the weak spots so much, though, before you need to be able to lean on your strengths. While Martin and Vincent did their level best to prop up the offense, Miami’s two standard-bearers could hardly throw the ball in the ocean Saturday. Butler and center Bam Adebayo combined to shoot 9-for-37 in Game 6, struggling mightily to find their touch and range over the length of Boston’s defenders.
“I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we're not even in this position, honestly speaking,” said Butler. “And I will be better. … Everything that happened tonight, if I don't go 5-for-21 and turn the ball over and all of this good stuff, it's a different story. I've got on a different hat up here, and we're getting ready to go to the Finals.”
For the third straight game, Butler missed a slew of shots in the paint that he was cashing in earlier in the postseason, while also leaving short the pull-up jumpers that the Celtics are more willing to concede to him. For the third straight game, Adebayo seemed uncomfortable challenging the length of Robert Williams III and unable to muscle up and over Al Horford, whose emphatic rejection of a Bam dunk attempt midway through the fourth quarter underscored just how much difficulty Adebayo’s had imposing his own will on the offensive end since Game 3:
To their credit, Butler and Adebayo continued to grind through those struggles, combining for 13 assists and 14 offensive rebounds; just when it looked like Boston was about to put the Heat to bed, Butler dug deep, began attacking the basket with reckless abandon and outscored the Celtics by himself over the final five minutes to give Miami a chance to close out the series.
“When I talk about our team's competitive will, we are following Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Their will is incredible,” Spoelstra said. “I don't give a damn what they shot. We were up one.”
Until they weren’t.
“Derrick White, like a flash of lightning, just came out of nowhere and saved the day, man,” Brown said.
And now, a Heat team that was a literal second away from advancing, has to pick itself back up off the canvas and, for the second straight year, play a Game 7 against the Celtics — this time, having lost three straight and on the verge of a historic collapse.
“This group’s pretty much been here before, you know? We’re just running it back,” Vincent said. “It’s almost storybook. It’s almost like it’s supposed to be this way.”
After surviving three straight closeout games, Tatum sat at the podium positively beaming, like a man who finally sees his storybook ending within his grasp.
“I've never been so excited to go back to Boston in my life,” he said.