A 3–0 lead gone in 3.0 seconds.
The Celtics moved one step closer to making NBA history Saturday night, stealing victory from the Heat in one of the most thrilling finishes in recent basketball memory to somehow force a Game 7 in the East finals. Boston won 104–103 thanks to a last-second putback by Derrick White, and calling it last-second doesn’t even do the shot justice.
White was down to his very last tenth of a second when he rebounded and scored off a Marcus Smart miss as time expired, only moments after the Heat completed a shocking comeback of their own to take the lead in the first place. The series now shifts back to Boston, where the Celtics will look to become the first team to come back from an 0–3 series deficit.
How did the Heat get here? Where do you want to begin? How about on May 27, 2022?
Exactly one year prior to its Game 6 loss on Saturday, it was Miami that found itself with its back against the wall on the road, trying to avoid elimination. Trailing the Celtics 3–2, Jimmy Butler had one of the best performances in Heat history—47 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists—to keep his team alive.
Since then, over the last 366 days, Miami has been on a never-ending rollercoaster ride that will culminate in Monday’s Game 7.
Let’s stay in 2022 for now. How did Butler follow up that epic Game 6 last year? He scored 35 while playing every minute in Game 7, leading a—get ready to hear this a few more times—furious rally in the fourth quarter, only to miss a late, pull-up three that quite possibly could have sent the Heat to the NBA Finals. Miami trailed for most of that game, yet came so close to snatching the win from Boston.
Pat Riley brought the vast majority of last year’s roster back this season, only for the team that was maybe one shot away from the championship round to scuffle during the regular season. The Heat grinded from October through mid-April, finishing with a negative point differential after 82 games. Miami was defeated soundly by Atlanta in its first play-in game, and needed to—here we go again—storm back in the fourth quarter to eke past the Bulls and meagerly make the playoffs as the eighth seed. Surely a team that barely made the postseason would be no match for the No. 1 overall seed in the bracket, right?
Instead the ride was only picking up steam.
The Heat caught fire, swarming the heavily favored Bucks and sending them home in five games in Round 1. It was an improbable, inexplicable occurrence, only for Miami to follow that up with an even more shocking set of wins, eventually taking a 3–0 lead over the heavily favored Celtics in the conference finals.
And then, a twist.
Boston came back from a nine-point deficit in the second half of Game 4 to keep the series alive. Then, the Celtics shot Miami out of the gym in Game 5. And in Game 6, they controlled the action for 44 minutes.
Then came a loop.
The Heat, much like they did in last year’s Game 7 and several times since, mounted a wild comeback. In under four minutes, Miami went on a seemingly season-salvaging 15–4 run. Butler, who was ineffective on both ends of the floor for most of the game, finally got going. He scored 15 points in the final period, and made three of his five field goals for the night in the last 12 minutes. And for a brief period, it looked like he would get to write a storybook ending to this story.
After pulling up and missing his Game 7 three last year, this time as the game wound down, Butler was able to draw a three-shot foul on Al Horford. Butler calmly stepped to the line and drained all three free throws. After Butler‘s worst game of the playoffs, and after losing control of the series, the Heat were somehow only three seconds away from making the finals.
Then came a steep, steep drop.
Miami successfully denied Jayson Tatum the ball on the Celtics’ final possession, causing White to inbound the ball to Smart. The Heat forced him to take a tough three, and as the ball rolled slowly around the inside of the rim and popped out, the crowd collectively exhaled.
Only for another hard turn to re-ignite the screams.
Taking advantage of a Tatum-focused Max Strus, White darted along the baseline, coolly grabbed the miss and in one fell swoop, softly lofted the ball back in the basket to give the Celtics the win.
It’s easy to say the Heat lost on a once-in-a-lifetime bounce in Game 6. Except for Butler, it’s now the third time he’s been on the wrong end of a miracle shot in the playoffs, if you include his Game 7 three in ’22 and Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce winner in ’19.
“Nope,” Butler said after the game when asked if he couldn’t believe he was on the losing side of another rare play, adding, “when we huddle up after the game, after a tough loss like this one, everybody is smiling because we know we’re very capable of [winning], I’m telling you, and we are not going to let up. I’m not going to let anybody quit. I’m not going to let our guys quit.
“I don't give a damn what happens. We're going to go in there and we're going to win.”
An eager Erik Spoelstra also appeared unfazed by the sudden defeat.
“There's been nothing easy about this season for our group, and so we just have to do it the hard way,” Spoelstra said. “That's just the way it's got to be for our group. We wish we would tip this thing off, right now. Right now, let's tip this thing off and let's play another 48 minutes. But we'll wait 48 hours and do this thing in Boston.”
The Heat have been saying all the right things since dropping Game 4. But only their effort in Game 7 will prove if they have what Spoelstra likes to call the “emotional stability” to survive yet another letdown. Twists, turns, drops, dips, dives, whatever you want to call the up-and-down nature of Miami, the team’s defining characteristic has become an inability to stay on an even keel.
All of that was on display in Saturday’s fourth quarter alone. Going down by 10, thanks in part to a seldom-seen four-point play after Bam Adebayo grabbed the rim and was called for goaltending and technical on a Jaylen Brown layup. Then fighting to stay in the game, even after Duncan Robinson missed two wide-open threes late that could have deflated lesser clubs. Then somehow taking the lead, as Butler remained aggressive despite his struggles, and willed his way to the free-throw line for the go-ahead buckets in the waning seconds. That quarter was a microcosm of the Heat experience. Up, down, dead, alive. There’s no in-between. As Riley would say, it’s winning or misery.
For a year now, the Heat have experienced massive swings, coming close to making the NBA Finals twice while almost missing the playoffs altogether in between. That won’t change in Game 7. Either Miami comes back from a devastating defeat to continue its Cinderella run, or the Heat complete a calamitous collapse. Considering how things have gone for Miami since last May, there was no other way for this series to end.