Derrick White saved it all.
The game. The season. His teammates’ reputations and legacies.
The Celtics’ hopes of reaching the Finals for the second straight year and coming away with no regrets and a brand-new banner this time.
He saved it all. Everything. All of it.
When you’re a Boston Celtic and you make a play that instantly summons fans’ memories of “Havlicek stole the ball!” in 1965, Gerald Henderson’s interception of a sleepy James Worthy pass in ‘84, and, most uncannily, “Now there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ, lays it in!” in ‘87, you know you’ve done something more than memorable.
You’ve done something special, unforgettable, impossibly clutch. By making an astonishing play when hope was waning and the moment demanded the extraordinary, you’ve become an instant part of Celtics lore, the richest in professional basketball.
The full magnitude of White’s alert, hustling, Dennis-Johnson-level-hoop-IQ putback layup with 0.1 on the clock, which gave the Celtics a 104-103 victory over the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night, can’t be measured in full until we know the outcome of this series, and the season.
But we do know this, from the moment the shot was confirmed as good: It’s a play we will never forget.
Sure, it may have taken a second for it to register in our minds. Realizing that White had slipped in for the putback in even less than a full nick of time was stop-you-in-your-tracks stunning, the ol’ Jack Buck “I don’t believe what I just saw!” but on a basketball court rather than a ballfield.
But we knew the context and importance right away. It was instant legend, leading to the immediate conjuring of legendary clutch Celtics moments past — as soon as the officials, after a brief huddle, deemed that it counted and we could indeed believe what we saw.
The Celtics, who with a win at TD Garden on Memorial Day will become — and it does feel like a “will” rather than a “could” at this point — the first team in NBA history to win a playoff series after falling behind, three games to none.
This third straight victory did not come easy because, well, even when they are nobly battling for their basketball lives, these Celtics rarely choose the unencumbered path.
The Celtics led the Heat, 98-88, with just under four minutes remaining, but some familiar flaws — a deliberate, disjointed late-game offense, ill-advised 3-pointers, and missed assignments and misguided decisions on defense — showed up at just the wrong time. The Heat seized the lead, 103-102, when Jimmy Butler sank three free throws after a foolish foul by the usually focused Al Horford.
White’s game-, season-, and everything-else-saving play came on a follow-up to a missed Marcus Smart turnaround jumper. White inbounded the ball to Smart, whose potential game-winner, which he made sure to get off with time remaining on the clock, unlike his too-late potential game-winner in Game 4 of the previous round against the Sixers, rattled out. But White had the sense to crash the boards and rapidly but delicately banked in his follow-up a fraction of a second before the buzzer.
Oh, yes, Derrick White saved it all.
He rescued Horford from questions about what he was thinking in fouling Butler. He rescued Jayson Tatum, who scored 31 points and hauled in 12 important rebounds but who went 0 of 8 from 3-point land, from questions about his ability to close games. He saved Joe Mazzulla from further conjecture by nitwits like me about his job security. He saved the Celtics from an offseason of what-ifs, could-have-beens, and losers’ laments.
But White didn’t just save. He gave something, too: a reminder of how fun and fulfilling it can be to care about sports. It was the exact feeling I had, and maybe you did too, after Bird stole the ball and fed DJ for the winning layup when most hope looked lost against the loathsome Pistons in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. It jostled joyous memories across sports — of Dave Roberts’s steal, and Malcolm Butler’s interception, and Julian Edelman’s catch during the comeback.
Maybe it kept you awake Saturday night, not that you wanted to sleep. It was way more fun to watch every giddy, relieved interview of a Celtic, to search Twitter for an angle of White’s shot that you hadn’t yet seen, to rewind and rewatch and rewind and rewatch another dozen times those final three seconds.
Derrick White saved the season, and so much more, Saturday night. Included on that list: He saved himself a permanent place in Celtics lore.
Hondo and Henderson. Larry and DJ. And now, D-White. The club is exclusive. Their feats are eternal.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if there’s one more angle I haven’t seen yet, and maybe one more after that.