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Amid another ref controversy, White’s Game 6 buzzer-beater has Celtics on verge of history

Jimmy Butler drained some huge free throws. Officials Zach Zarba and Josh Tiven made a very curious call. Then Derrick White gave Boston the chance to go onto make history.

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2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

No team has ever come back from down 3-0 out of 149 tries in the NBA.

But the Boston Celtics have found a way to tie this Eastern Conference Finals series vs. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and the Miami Heat. It’s now 3-3 heading back to TD Garden.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and co. headed into Game 6 as just the 12th team to even push a series to six games after dropping the first three. And now, they’re just one of four teams in history to push it to seven.

Of those four of 149, they’re the only ones who will host the seventh and final contest.

So yeah, basically, the 76ers’ top rivals are on the precipice of making history, set to become the first NBA team to rally from down 3-0 and advance.

Everyone is getting 2004 Boston Red Sox vibes.

DraftKings gives Boston a -7.5 edge, and a (-320) Money Line to advance. That amounts to roughly a 75 percent shot to turn around and gear up to host the Denver Nuggets in the 2023 NBA Finals.

This Heat team has proven so resilient. How are they even here, as far as they are?

But similarly to the Philadelphia 76ers, who dropped a winnable closeout game at the crib in a second-round Game 6, up 3-2, Miami finding a way to dust themselves off after a heartbreaker like that and trying to go win a Game 7 on the road feels insurmountable; especially when it’s Boston who is the superior team in terms of top-end talent.

Here was your shocking game-winner by Celtics’ guard Derrick White.

(Boston once acquired White using a bundle of assets which included one of the draft picks former Sixers’ Prez Bryan Colangelo forked over in the Markelle Fultz trade; Danny Ainge selected Romeo Langford who was eventually San Antonio bound.)

You can see that Max Strus, one of several undrafted players who’ve helped the Heat over the years, is not facing White, the inbounder. Instead, Strus helps Butler deny Jayson Tatum the ball. That strategy by Erik Spoelstra leads to a pass that finds Marcus Smart, who immediately turns and fires.

Strus then has to dodge Smart’s body in order not to foul the shooter but then takes a somewhat looping, lazy angle on his attempt to put a body on White, now cutting for a tip-in.

In hindsight, perhaps Strus could have anticipated that a little better. Jayson Tatum was in position for a tip-in on the opposite side of the rim, so Boston actually had a couple of chances for this type of play.

The Florida crowd celebrated Smart’s miss, just as White tips it in. Officials came together and counted White’s bucket, before heading back to review. As soon as the replay was available, it became clear White indeed got the shot off with 0.1 seconds left on the clock.

Boston celebrated. The game ended. But the controversy surrounding this one will only grow over time should Boston advance to host the Denver Nuggets in the Finals.

More weird officiating

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Going back to the prior play before White’s shot, Jimmy Butler was fouled by Al Horford on a three-point attempt.

Butler drained three monumental, potentially (at the time) legacy-defining free throws, to give Miami, who had trailed by as much as ten points with under five minutes remaining, a one-point lead with just seconds to go.

Heat fans could taste another trip to the big dance. It would have been (could still become) their 7th finals berth in the last 18 years; a wee bit better than once every three seasons. #HeatCulture anyone?

But before Butler cooly drained all three, the officiating crew of Zach Zarba, Josh Tiven, and James Williams went to the monitor to check if Jimmy’s toes were behind the arc and to straighten out the clock.

They likely received input coming from the NBA official replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey.

In the end, they correctly determined Butler was indeed behind the three-point line while shooting. But they incorrectly added too much time back on the clock; a peculiar error to make given how clear it was when Butler actually began his shooting motion and got fouled.

And that’s what has so many fans and analysts scratching their heads here.

The clock on our television screens stopped at 2.1 after Butler was fouled. Watching it in slow motion, it’s pretty clear Butler was fouled near the 2.7 mark.

Everyone at home seemed to have a much easier time sorting this out more precisely than the NBA’s officials and replay center. They just kind of rounded all the way up to 3.0. And that’s never a good thing.

Why is this relevant?

Because Boston needed the last tenth of a second of that ball game to get their game-winner off, otherwise White’s shot would have been waved off. Had the league simply got the time right, White’s tip wouldn’t have come in time, and Miami would be in the championship round.

Official Josh Tiven originally called Butler’s attempt a two-point try. Then they took a look and announced on the PA that Butler would get three free throws, but none of the common “please reset game clock to...” stuff we’re used to hearing.

As Butler prepares for his shots, you can see above, the clock jumps all the way up to 3.0 seconds. Broadcaster Stan Van Gundy reacts to the change live, as you can hear. Since there was no mention of that by Zarba or Tiven on the PA, one assumes that the clock element may have come in from Secaucus.

With another apparent bungle by the league’s clearly-imperfect replay process, it’s impossible not to think back to a year ago, when the NBA, unprompted, unchallenged, decided to call in from Secaucus and overturn a Max Strus three-pointer during a Game 7 of the 2022 ECF between these same two teams; that game was also in Miami. The call came a bizarrely long time after Strus’ triple went in. It disadvantaged Miami and helped Boston win a game they ultimately secured by a mere four points.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had this to say at the time, back in May of 2022:

“I’m sure they will look at that, and we’ll probably be the case study for it,” Spoelstra said. “I’m OK if it happens the way it used to. They would look at it at the next foul or break and look at it and notice it, but it was probably 10 minutes of real time — somebody check on that.

What precisely is the criteria to change an unchallenged call, long after the play has occurred? Surely, this wasn’t so overwhelmingly clear that it fits the bill of irrefutable, overturnable replay evidence?

So now, for the second season in a row, Miami gets to become some sort of “case study,” I suppose for the league to reexamine its process. And for the second season in a row, Boston gains an edge, in Miami, on a highly controversial official replay overturn.

Back in April of 2023, Sam Amick and Josh Robbins published The Athletic’s Anonymous Player poll, in which “officiating” was voted the biggest issue facing the NBA:

They were prescient.

And speaking of Sam Amick, he reported a few years ago, following another one of the most controversial games of the last ten years or so, that there were 17 missed calls that disadvantaged Houston back in Game 1 of the 2019 semifinals between the Rockets and Golden State Warriors.

You remember the landing zone foul game:

Well perhaps coincidentally, it was Zach Zarba and Josh Tiven officiating that contest as well. (Is no. 58, Tiven, still missing landing zone fouls in huge playoff moments, even after that 2019 Rockets game became so heavily scrutinized?)

It’s almost Tiven’s trademark, as players should know by now he’s one of the least likely officials to call a landing zone foul on a three.

I don’t have any grand conspiracy theories. I really do not. But when I started to watch this Game 6, just two minutes into the first quarter, I started to think to myself “man, these officials are going to be a major storyline here.”

And they were.

Watch Tatum above foul Bam Adebayo then flop, somehow drawing two enormous, game-altering free throws.

Grand conspiracy theorists have long argued that the NBA wants Game 7’s. Those NFL-style win-or-go-home bangers are rating bonanzas. There’s a reason “Lakers-Kings 2002” was trending last night.

Now I’m thinking back to the Sixers’ Game 6 loss to Boston, where the NBA’s official 48-minute report apparently concluded that there were 13 calls that disadvantaged the Sixers... like Miami, perhaps on the wrong end of the stick, in their own gym.

So it will be “interesting” to see the NBA’s full 48 and final two-minute reports for this last game.

[Editor’s update: from the NBA’s official two-minute report:

“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.”

Editor’s note continued...So the league is apparently sticking with this “the shooting foul occurred at 3.0 seconds” and I guess they want us to simply accept that the clock we see on television is just different (?) from the official one they really use!?

This is a very, very weaselly, slippery slope, isn’t it? Bad business, as Rob Perez says above.

It’s a tricky one for the NBA. Do you come out and say ‘sorry, we flubbed the clock, it should have been 2.7 like everyone saw on TV?’ Or do you say ‘actually, what you fans see on TV isn’t accurate, so don’t assume it is,’ forcing fans to question much, much more.

Fans at home are simply supposed to accept that we may never know the precise game time, and just have to trust that the “in-arena” clock we cannot see is more accurate than the one we’re privy to and so surely “Secaucus” will get it right?

It’s as if the truth of what really happened, in the biggest game of the season, is hidden from us. As a fan, I want to know I can record a game, hit slow motion, and see what the heck went down. They’re basically saying ‘nope, we have the true clock, you can’t see it, trust us to figure it out, even if it varies significantly from your television.

Ridiculous. It sure looked like White got his tip in off, imagine if they reviewed it and told us that tip didn’t count because the clock we saw on our TV replay was not in sync with the true arena clock so Miami wins. Where would it end?]

I don’t give the Heat much of a chance in Game 7. And I think Boston has too much firepower so they’ll also eventually beat the Nuggets, at least as of this writing; maybe even without Malcolm Brogdon who’s fallen out of Joe Mazzula’s rotation with an arm injury.

If Boston does move on to The Finals, surviving two road Game 6’s where they somehow enjoyed the benefit of officials' whistles, it would at least seem like the league has more work to do to reduce human error and subjectivity, given the preponderance of video cameras at their disposal.

We all know there is human error in real-time. But like dude, if you are going to stop the game to review and take five minutes of our time, at least have the decency to look at the clock as carefully as all of us at home on our sofas, please. And if what we’re seeing on our sofas isn’t accurate, fix that ASAP so we can trust these monumental outcomes.

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