The bizarre final seconds of the Celtics’ miracle 104-103 Game 6 win over the Miami Heat was merely the latest episode in what has been a bizarre series.
The Heat won the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals, looking like the more cohesive and better-coached team, especially the 26-point win in Game 3. The Celtics have stormed back with three consecutive wins, leading for most of the past two games, except in the final seconds of Saturday night’s Game 6.
Marcus Smart split two free throws with 16.9 seconds left to give the Celtics an uncomfortable 2-point lead. Jimmy Butler took the inbound pass guarded by Jayson Tatum, and then called for a pick from Bam Adebayo so he could be switched on to Al Horford. Tatum, who had defended Butler well in the series, likely should have gone under the screen so he could continue defending Butler, but Horford aggressively stepped forward to take on the challenge. Moments later, Butler drove to the right corner and drew a shooting foul on Horford with 2.1 seconds showing.
This is where things get hairy.
Horford obviously fouled Butler but Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla called for a challenge anyway, with essentially nothing to lose. But yet there could have been. Official Josh Tiven signaled it was a two-shot foul, but Heat players were asking for a review to determine whether Butler was behind the 3-point line.
The question is whether the NBA’s replay center would have informed the officiating crew that Butler’s foot was behind the line. Was that determined in the review? Also, Butler appeared to double dribble — he lost handle of the ball and then either picked it up and dribbled or lost handle again before raising up, where Horford struck his arm.
According to Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s head of referee development, the replay center would have informed the officiating crew that Butler’s feet were behind the 3-point line regardless of Mazzulla’s review.
The officials also strangely added 0.9 seconds to the clock — as a result of the challenge, according to McCutchen, because the review showed Horford’s first illegal contact on Butler occurred at 3.0 despite the clock stopping at 2.1.
“When you challenge a foul, we go to the first illegal act,” McCutchen told the Globe. “Mind you it’s not the camera angle that’s floating around on Twitter. We have nine different camera angles. We [show] the camera angle and the official says, ‘Right there. That’s where I had the foul.’ And we go from there.”
Butler attempted three free throws and the Celtics had three seconds to counter. McCutchen said Tiven initially called a two-shot foul because officials can never assume a three-shot foul and any change would be flagged during the replay center review.
According to the two-minute report released late Sunday afternoon, “Replay review of the foul called on Horford (BOS) pursuant to a coach’s challenge was deemed unsuccessful. Horford (BOS) made contact with Butler (MIA) during his shooting motion and a foul was warranted. During the review, the Replay Center Official also determined that i) the foul occurred at 3.0 seconds and adjusted the clock accordingly; and ii) Butler’s shot attempt was taken from behind the three-point line, and therefore three free throws were awarded.”
Meanwhile, Mazzulla had another timeout so the Celtics could advance the ball after Butler gave Miami the 1-point lead. In a sequence it could regret for years, Miami’s focus was to ensure Jayson Tatum didn’t catch Derrick White’s inbound pass. The Heat decided to use Max Strus, assigned to guard White, to double Tatum.
Strus chased Tatum near the midcourt line and White fed Marcus Smart in front of Gabe Vincent. Smart, who said he remembered how the Celtics didn’t get a shot off in Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, immediately fired a 3-pointer at the 2.4-second mark. White darted for the corner, for a potential Smart pass, and then never stopped as he saw the shot released.
Strus, who is being criticized for allowing White a free run to the rim, was shielded by Smart’s body on the shot, costing him precious split seconds as he raced for the basket, just a step behind White. It was too late. White had an unimpeded putback at 0.2 while Tatum leaped toward the other side of the rim in case the shot caromed right.
“I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Everybody crash,’ but we’ve talked about it almost the whole year,” White said. “Everybody is just like, ‘Make a play.’ That’s all it was right there, ‘Make a play.’ ”
It was good fortune because the ball bounced right to White, but it was a brilliant play by White because he kept running instead of ball watching. Butler stopped at the 3-point when Tatum didn’t get the ball and watched. Bam Adebayo screened Jaylen Brown at the free throw line and stood there as Tatum ran past him for the potential putback.
Vincent stood near where Smart released the shot, watched it bounce off the rim and raised his arms in victory, just moments before White swooped in for the winner. Caleb Martin, cheating off Horford planted in the right corner, stood in the key the entire time and didn’t react until Tatum and White were in the air for the rebound.
The Heat got caught slipping and the Celtics took full advantage for a stunning and memorable victory.
“I mean, I was passing it in,” White said. “Vincent was on me, and he kind of was up top denying JT, so I couldn’t get him the ball, and they did a good job of denying JB, too and Smart flashed, hit him, and there really was nobody on me, so I just spaced to the corner, and when he shot it just tried to crash. Ball came to me, I made the shot. That’s what I saw.”