There are plenty of reasons for why the Miami Heat are now one win away from the NBA Finals, following their nervy 112-109 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The zone defense that Miami has deployed more than any other team clutched up enough stops to hold off the Celtics in the fourth quarter; Jimmy Butler shook off a subpar offensive game to sink three free throws in the final seconds; and Bam Adebayo did his usual thing, putting up his sixth 20-point double-double of the playoffs.
But, fuck it. The real reason Miami won is that their 20-year-old rookie exploded for the best game of his career. Game 4 belonged to Tyler Herro.
Before Wednesday night’s game, Herro’s career-high in the NBA was 30 points, scored on August 12 against the Thunder. He never scored more than 29 at Kentucky, either. Yet, in a game that the Celtics needed to win, it was the rookie who emerged as the top weapon.
Herro shot 14-of-21 from the floor, including 5-of-10 from three. A significant portion of those shots came with a high degree of difficulty; on the menu were off-balance threes, pull-up jumpers, and even a nifty Euro step on Kemba Walker. His deep step-back three over Marcus Smart with just over four minutes to go put Miami up eight, giving them just enough cushion to survive a late Celtics rush:
After he hit 30 points, the Celtics finally realized they should pay more attention to Herro, doubling him on a handful of trips down the court. It didn’t matter; Herro was able to swing the ball around, utilizing Goran Dragic and Butler as safety valves at the top of the arc, and finding Adebayo with a picture-perfect entry pass that led to free throws for the big man. (Adebayo hurt his left arm on a tussle by the basket, and his health might be the most important factor in Friday’s Game 5.)
Along the way to his 37 points, Herro also made a bunch of history. His points total now dwarfs the previous Heat rookie record for a playoff game, which was set by Dwyane Wade in 2004. The rookie also became just the fourth player to score 33-plus points in a playoff game at the age of 20, joining Magic Johnson, Derrick Rose, and the immortal Brandon Jennings. The 37 points, combined with his 22 points in Game 3, made Herro the first rookie in 39 years to score 20-plus off the bench in back-to-back playoff games. In other words, Herro had one of the best playoff games for a rookie in NBA history. Not bad for the 13th pick in the 2019 draft.
Herro’s final bucket, a free layup from a picture-perfect cut, put the Heat up nine with under a minute to go, seemingly ending the game right then and there:
That wasn’t the actual end, and there are still concerns for Miami beyond Adebayo’s arm. The Celtics were able to ride some excellent shooting, most notably from Jaylen Brown with Herro in his face, and two favorable replay reviews to close the gap to two, before Butler’s free throws sealed the game for Miami. One of the benefits of going up 3-1, though, is that the pressure will now shift entirely onto the Celtics, who will want to channel the Denver Nuggets’ energy for the 14th 3-1 comeback in NBA history. To do that, they will have to find a way to slow Herro down.
If they can’t, Miami might just have too many weapons to overcome. It also doesn’t hurt that the Heat have shut down at least one of Boston’s top four players in each of the wins so far. Boston still hasn’t faced a good Butler game on offense, and any additional attention focused on Herro after his explosion could leave a mismatch elsewhere. Poor Kemba Walker, who tried very hard to defend Herro, just could not match his height for much of the second half.
The Heat carved out this series lead on the strength of their defense in the first two games, before poor games from Dragic and Butler allowed Boston to take Game 3. Though neither of those Heat players shot particularly well on Wednesday—Butler went 8-for-20 and Dragic 8-for-21—Herro more than picked up the slack. Now the Heat are one win away from one of the more unlikely NBA Finals berths in recent memory. If Herro keeps playing like this, it might not matter what Boston does from here on out.