Image via Sports Illustrated
What I just witnessed was one of the wildest endings to a Boston sports event in my lifetime.
The Celtics were up 98-88 with four minutes to go, already defying the odds of a team that had been down 3-0 in the series. What followed gave me flashbacks to every close game the Celtics had been in this entire playoffs. 10 points was a deficit Miami was able to come back from. It appeared the Celtics were about to choke away another close game, but what followed proved wrong anyone who doubted the clutchness of this team.
Boston got the ball back with three seconds on the clock. Marcus Smart tried and failed on a three-point shot. However, with 0.4 seconds to go, Boston hadn’t given up on the play. Derrick White had been speeding towards the basket from the second he gave the ball to Smart. White got the rebound and immediately pushed the ball into the basket right as time expired.
At first, it seemed White was too late, but after the refs reviewed the replay, it was clear. White had released the ball with just a tenth of a second to spare! The team was jumping for joy and congratulating White on what he had just done. The Celtics had made history, and set themselves up for the opportunity to make even more.
150 other teams have been down 3-0 in an NBA playoff series. Only 3 of them made it to Game 7. While all of them did end up losing, this is a very different situation. None of those three teams had the chance to play Game 7 on their home floor. All the Celtics have to do to go to the NBA Finals is win Game 7 at the Garden.
If you would have told me this a week ago, I may not have believed you. Early in the series, the Celtics struggled to play defense how they had for the majority of the season. By Game 3 in Miami, they looked lost and defeated. However, just about anything can happen in this city of champions. Much like the 2004 Red Sox before them, the Celtics showed perseverance that few teams outside this city had shown.
Even tonight, there were moments that were familiarly frustrating. The Celtics were unable to make threes for most of the game. Even by the end, only Marcus Smart and Derrick White had made successful three pointers for the Celtics. In addition, they were letting up wide open threes to the Heat. Even when the Celtics defense began to pick up the intensity, the Heat continued to shoot an insane amount of threes. Duncan Robinson made a couple deep, contested threes in the fourth quarter that made me worry there was nothing the Celtics could do to beat the Heat.
Despite these problems, the Celtics held a lead for majority of the game. It almost seemed like they were playing an entirely different brand of basketball tonight. The offense was, as usual, centered around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. However, both of them were resisting on taking difficult threes and instead driving it to the paint. Robert Williams III was also key on both offense and defense, serving as a finisher at the rim and blocker of shots in the paint. You could argue Williams completely controlled the paint when he was on the floor.
That brand of basketball led them to be up 10 with four minutes to go. However, that’s when the Celtics began to feel the pressure. It’s also when Jimmy Butler woke up. Between drawing fouls and making clutch shots, Butler scored 13 of his 24 points in these final minutes. The final three came on a shooting foul with three seconds to go. This took it from a 102-100 Celtics lead to a 103-102 Heat lead, the kind of ending that felt all too familiar to Celtics fans. Though this game was far from over.
Winning in this fashion proves more than most other wins the Celtics have picked up in these playoffs. While they have let games get too close at times, we now know they have the clutch factor to win a close game when they really, desperately need it. This is still a team that’s gone 5-0 in elimination games these playoffs. When it really matters, the 2023 Celtics have risen to the occasion. Close game situations are definitely an area to work on, but tonight proved this team has that dog in them.
After seeing this win, it’s much easier to believe this team can follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Red Sox and defy the odds of the 150 NBA teams before them. Joe Mazzulla must have had someone from that Red Sox team come in to speak! Whatever it is that’s helping them turn it around, the Celtics seem to be doing it right. All they need to do in Game 7 is stick with what’s worked. If they can get a little better from three on top of it, watch out.