The Boston Celtics have come all the way back. Having started off the Eastern Conference Finals by losing three straight games against the Miami Heat, they’ve scored three consecutive wins, giving them a chance to become the first team in NBA history to come back from an 0-3 series deficit. All it took was one miracle — having blown a lead late in the fourth quarter, Derrick White tipped in a missed three-pointer at the buzzer to score a 104-103 win and put themselves on the precipice of history.
Jayson Tatum sparked the Celtics tonight, scoring 25 points in the first half and finishing with a total of 31. Jaylen Brown added 26 of his own, but struggled with foul trouble and a wrist injury, and Marcus Smart continued his Eastern Conference Finals surge with 21 points and 4 made threes. For Miami, the role players performed admirably, including 59 points from their vaunted cadre of undrafted role players — Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson. The stars, however, came up short. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo posted their worst games of the postseason, scoring 35 points on 9-of-37 shooting from the field combined.
If you knew nothing else, you’d be able to discern this game’s importance just based on the play on the court in the first quarter. This was perhaps the highest energy stretch of basketball of the series thus far, with both teams flying up and down the court and locking in defensively. The quarter progressed with remarkably few stoppages in play, maintaining an enjoyable up-tempo pace as both teams executed at a high level. Through one, it was the Celtics who sat on top, leading 34-29.
Brown had himself an electric start to this game, shooting 5-of-6 from the field in the first quarter, but moments into the second, he took a foul from Kyle Lowry under the basket and appeared to be favoring his left wrist. Brown had been undergoing treatment on that wrist prior to the game, but remained in the game after seeming to have aggravated the injury. He took issue with Lowry as he lined up for the free throws, leading to a minor scuffle, but no fouls called. He scored just one point in the second quarter — a made free throw — after suffering the injury.
The Heat’s three-point shooting spiked back up to early-series levels, but the Celtics found their way to the free throw line with greater assertiveness. They put themselves in the bonus with a whopping nine minutes remaining in the quarter, including 11 FTA from Tatum in the first half. The Boston lead stretched into double-figures, spearheaded by a lights-out performance from Tatum, who was cooking from midrange and torching Miami’s defenders off the dribble. A Miami run late in the quarter narrowed the gap, but the Celtics held on to a four-point lead at the halftime break, 57-53.
Of note: with just over three minutes remaining in the first half, Butler and Adebayo got tangled up under the basket, and Adebayo appeared to land with his full body weight on Butler’s knee. Butler was slow to get up after the play, but remained in the game and finished the first half for Miami. Additionally, Robert Williams III departed the game for the locker room near the end of the quarter, appearing to have injured his left hand, but returned later in the third and appeared to suffer no ill effects.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra burned his coach’s challenge early in the third quarter, on a play in which Brown drew a foul on a made jumper in the paint. In an important call, the officials ruled that Brown was not fouled but — importantly — did not commit a foul himself, avoiding what would have been a tough fourth foul early in the third. It was a relatively good break for the Celtics... which Brown almost immediately overruled, picking up that fourth foul two minutes later and departing the game with just over nine minutes remaining in the quarter.
The margin of error became perilously thin as the third quarter progressed. Mirroring the Celtics in the second, the Heat put themselves in the bonus with over nine minutes remaining in the third. The lead, subsequently, hung within one possession for much of the quarter, as the Heat managed to keep themselves close despite their standout deep shooting beginning to cool. Miami’s kitchen sink approach began to unravel as the clock ticked down. The Celtics swelled their lead as high as 13 points late in the third, and they led by seven entering the final frame, 79-72.
Miami narrowed the gap once more during Tatum’s rest minutes in the first quarter, drawing back within one possession before a Derrick White three-pointer pushed them back. Their surge continued after Tatum’s return, however, and amounted to an 11-3 run that allowed Miami to retake a one-point lead with roughly eight minutes to play. A goaltend, foul and technical from Adebayo allowed the Celtics to take the lead back, and on the ensuing possession, he was blocked on a dunk attempt by Horford. Two free throws from Brown later, and the Celtics lead was five with just over seven minutes to play.
Two more free throws from Tatum — his first points of the second half — pushed the Celtics ahead by seven, before a three-pointer from Duncan Robinson lead another Miami surge. The Celtics had the necessary answers, with a three from White and an and-one layup from Smart pushing them ahead by 10 as the clock ticked under five minutes to play.
Trailing 100-91 with just over three minutes left, the Heat had one more surge left in them. Vincent converted a layup and Butler connected on a three, then Butler recorded a 1-of-2 trip to the free throw line to trim the Boston lead down to three points with a minute and a half remaining. Butler’s missed free throw resulted in an offensive rebound for the Heat, but Robinson missed a wide-open three-pointer with a chance to tie the game. A 1-of-2 trip for Brown put the Celtics ahead by four, but Butler recorded a three-point play to leave the two teams with just a one-point game with 53 seconds remaining. A pair of empty possessions ensued, with Tatum being blocked by Adebayo on a layup attempt and Robinson missing another three-pointer, before Smart drew a foul and made 1-of-2 free throws to put Boston ahead by two points.
Then came the spectacular finish. With the shot clock turned off, Butler drew a shooting foul from Horford to go to the line with a chance to send the game to overtime. Joe Mazzulla challenged the play — a two-point jumper — and upon review, it was determined that not only was Butler fouled, he was fouled with both feet behind the three-point line, granting him an extra free throw and a chance to put the Heat ahead. He converted all three, and Mazzulla took the final timeout with three seconds to play. On the out-of-bounds play, Smart missed a quick three-point attempt, but White corralled the offensive rebound and tipped in a layup with fractions of a second to spare, securing the 104-103 win.
Next up: Game 7. The Celtics and Heat will face off in Boston with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line this Monday at 8:30 PM EST on TNT.