He raised and lowered his right index finger over and over to indicate that his buzzer-beater on a putback of Marcus Smart’s miss was good. Coach Joe Mazzulla asked him once, and then a second time, seeking some reassurance.
“Yeah, I think so,” White told whoever would listen.
Jayson Tatum later called it the most agonizing 10 seconds ever. But when the replay was shown on the arena’s video board, the truth was there for all to see.
The crowd groaned. White was mobbed by his teammates. Celtics 104, Heat 103. A Game 6 instant classic was complete, and this charmed Boston season lived on.
“The group that we have is unique, the group that we have is special,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said, “and sometimes you need a little bit of luck to bring it home.”
The Celtics are at once chasing a championship and chasing history. They have now tied the Eastern Conference finals 3-3, and are on the verge of becoming the first team in 151 tries to win an NBA playoff series after trailing 3-0. Their dreams are much bigger than becoming the answer to a trivia question.
And despite the flood of emotion and joy that filled their locker room late Saturday night, this series is not over. These two teams will meet once more, in Game 7 at TD Garden on Monday night.
“There is no guarantee,” Mazzulla said. “We just have to understand why we’re still alive, and the mindset doesn’t shift. We just can’t relax.”
The Heat spoke confidently about their next chance following this crushing loss, but it’s hard to imagine that, after being .1 seconds from becoming the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals, this result will not leave visible scars.
Heat star Jimmy Butler, who appeared frustrated and exhausted for most of the game, had somehow summoned a burst over the final four minutes to lead his team back from a 10-point deficit and put the Celtics on the brink of a long, sad summer.
In Game 7 of the conference finals between these teams last season, Butler went for the win when he pulled up for a late 3-pointer and missed. He appeared to have a similar mindset Saturday when he dribbled to the right corner and let the ball fly.
The shot was off, but Butler was fouled by Al Horford with 2.1 seconds left. The Celtics challenged the play and lost, and it was determined to be a three-pointer after review. But 0.9 seconds were also added to the clock — extra time that became essential.
Butler calmly buried three foul shots to put his team in front, but the Celtics were not done. Their huddle was hopeful, upbeat, and focused.
“Nobody was sitting there pouting,” Tatum said.
Brown said a few prayers to himself, and Mazzulla drew up a play to get the ball to Tatum. This came as no surprise to the Heat, who did not guard White’s inbounds pass and sent two defenders toward Boston’s star.
The pass came in to Smart, who had enough time to think back to Game 4 of the semifinals against the 76ers, when his potential game-winning 3-pointer came after the final buzzer. He would not let that happen again.
White knew there was also time for his own moment. The Celtics always talk about crashing toward the hoop to give themselves a chance in these situations. Maybe there wasn’t even enough time here, but White was determined to find out.
“I mean, it don’t do no good to stand in the corner,” he said.
He sprinted toward the rim, unmarked and unencumbered.
“Like a flash of lightning,” Brown said.
If Smart had held the ball a moment longer, or taken a dribble, his shot would have been the only shot. But he turned and fired a 26-footer from the left arc that went all the way in before popping all the way out. In so many scenarios, that would have been the end.
But the ball took the perfect, gentle bounce toward the left side, where White was waiting. He jumped and put the layup in off the glass.
“That’s the only place it could have bounced to hurt us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I thought we had a lot of things covered on that play, and sometimes things just don’t break your way.”
The soft-spoken, mild-mannered White, who was acquired from the Spurs in a midseason trade last year, has turned into a key piece. But he is unaccustomed to being the central figure of moments such as this one.
His eyes welled with tears afterward. His game-winner saved what would have been a disastrous end for these Celtics, whose 0-6 record in crunch-time games this postseason appeared on the verge of getting one final, torturous chapter.
“Listen, I’ll tell you one thing, man,” Smart said. “If you don’t know who D-White is, you know who he is now.”
For much of this season, the Celtics’ success has mostly mirrored their efficiency from the 3-point line. But that was not the case Saturday. They made just 7 of 35 shots from beyond the arc for a season-low 20 percent. Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Grant Williams were a combined 0 for 17.
The Celtics also forced just five turnovers, but their defense was otherwise stout, holding Miami to just 35.5 percent shooting overall.
Tatum scored 25 of his 31 points in the first half. Brown finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds and Smart added 21 points. But White’s final two were the ones that will be remembered for years to come.
Butler had 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists for Miami, including a 15-point fourth quarter in which he erased Boston’s 98-88 lead during the final four minutes. He calmly drilled all three free throws with three seconds left, and if not for White’s heroics, his closing kick would have been the indelible part of this night.
Instead, the series continues on.
“I’m still, like, in disbelief,” Tatum said. “That [expletive] was crazy. But I’m glad we’ve got another chance.”
Read more about Game 6:
Washburn: A historic moment for Derrick White
Instant analysis: How the Celtics survived a massive Heat rally
Celtics Notebook: Malcolm Brogdon sidelined for Game 6