Maybe you saw Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas. Maybe you heard Johnny Most screaming about John Havlicek. Maybe you rewound just a year to Jayson Tatum putting Kyrie Irving on spin cycle in the final second.
The beauty of following such a storied franchise is the endless supply of big moments with which to compare, contrast, and contextualize the incredible feat we can’t believe we just saw. White’s put-back joins the list, so let’s examine its echoes as the Celtics prepare for Game 7 and a chance to add to their illustrious legacy by becoming the first team to overcome a 3-0 playoff deficit.
1. Havlicek stole the ball
White’s heroics saved the Celtics a defeat that would’ve made scapegoats of veteran big man Al Horford and head coach Joe Mazzulla. Horford fouled Heat star Jimmy Butler in the closing seconds and the Celtics leading by two, and Mazzulla’s challenge allowed the referees to see that Butler had actually attempted a 3-pointer instead of a 2. When he made all three free throws, the Heat found themselves only three seconds from the Finals.
Havlicek’s famous steal got Hall of Famer Bill Russell off the hook in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Division Finals, because the star center had given Philadelphia the ball in the closing seconds by throwing an inbounds pass off a guide wire. After Havlicek tipped Hal Greer’s ensuing pass to Sam Jones to preserve the one-point victory, Russell fought through hundreds of delirious fans to hug the teammate who had saved the season.
The Celtics piled on White with equal parts gratitude and disbelief.
2. Larry Bird follows his own shot
The signature play of Bird’s first title came in Game 1 of the 1981 Finals vs. the Rockets, when he launched a 20-footer and then immediately raced to the exact spot where the ball would carom to snare the rebound in midair on the right baseline and scoop it in with his left hand.
Red Auerbach called it the greatest play he had ever seen, and Bird’s breathtaking instincts were mirrored by White inbounding to Smart, zipping to the corner for a possible return pass, and then crashing the boards, all in the span of only three seconds.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra lamented that the ball landed in the only spot that could hurt his team, but an alternate interpretation would posit that White put himself exactly where he needed to be.
3. Bird steals it
The Pistons had the Celtics beaten in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. All they needed to do was inbound with five seconds left, hit their free throws, and stop a desperation 3. But Bird had other ideas.
When he stole Thomas’s pass along the baseline, he reacted immediately. Much like Marcus Smart gave the Celtics a chance by launching his 3 on the catch, Bird wasted no time hitting the cutting Johnson, whose beeline to the basket rivaled White’s. The layup pulled victory from defeat and the Celtics won the series in seven games.
For sheer improbability, this had to be the first moment that sprung to mind for Celtics fans of a certain age when White beat the buzzer.
4. Bird’s near miss
In the 1987 Finals, the Celtics ran into the fresher and healthier Lakers, but after taking Game 3 in Boston, they had a chance to even the series. Bird hit the go-ahead 3 in the waning moments of Game 4 before Magic Johnson’s iconic baby hook restored L.A.’s one-point lead.
The Celtics had two seconds and Bird’s 3-pointer released in front of the terrified Lakers bench looked dead center, but it barely caught back iron. It’s hard to imagine a potential game-winner missing by less.
Smart’s effort came awfully close. His fallaway flew true, but it caught every part of the rim before bouncing away. Celtics fans had only a split-second to bemoan yet another year-miss before White appeared like a bolt of lightning, as teammate Jaylen Brown described it. And in an instant, oh-so-close morphed into, “Oh my god!”
5. Buzzer beater vs. Nets
The current Celtics already have a magical moment of their own, and it came in Game 1 of the first round last year vs. Kevin Durant, Irving, and the Nets. The Celtics took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, but Irving’s 3-pointer with 45 seconds left broke a 111-111 tie.
Brown’s layup cut the deficit to one, and then the Celtics harassed Durant into a wayward 3. Rather than call timeout, White raced the Celtics up the floor off of Horford’s defensive rebound. All five players touched the ball before Smart hit a cutting Tatum for the twirling buzzer-beater that kickstarted a sweep and eventual Finals berth.
Wherever White’s heroics on Saturday ultimately lead, this much is certain: He just made another memory that we’ll be able to summon the next time the Celtics pull off a postseason miracle.