Tyler Herro was already a story before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. The rookie had exploded for 18 first-half points in Game 3, including a flurry of 3s that kept the Miami Heat's offense afloat. He was averaging 14.8 points, 4.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds in the playoffs, giving Miami extra playmaking beyond what Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo provide. But he didn't have a game like this on his resume.
Herro poured in 37 points off the bench against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, propelling the Heat to a 112-109 victory and a 3-1 series lead. And he did it in efficient fashion: 14-for-21 shooting, 5-for-10 from deep.
He punished Boston's weaker defenders, exploited its drop coverage in pick-and-rolls and, after he'd heated up, he didn't care who was guarding him. With about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Herro isolated against all-world defender Marcus Smart and launched a jumper from several feet behind the 3-point line. Smart contested it just fine, but it dropped through the net, earning a "BANG!" from Mike Breen on the broadcast.
"The context of those makes are the big separators in this league," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Those are pressure shots. We had to step up against a really good defense. He was making plays at the end of the clock. And that's the skill set that he has."
Miami had a 12-point lead in the third quarter largely because of its defense, which took the Celtics completely out of rhythm. Boston star Jayson Tatum didn't score a single point in the first half, and the Heat's 2-3 zone once again proved disruptive.
But Tatum picked things up and finished this game with a team-high 28 points on 10-for-22 shooting -- remarkable stuff from someone who was out of sorts for so long. Even when the Celtics got going, though, Miami was able to match their playmaking and defensive versatility with its own.
Bam Adebayo continued to give Boston trouble. He scored 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting, with 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals and an incalculable amount of activity at the bottom of the Heat's zone. Butler and Dragic weren't all that efficient, shooting-wise, but they made clutch plays and kept Miami steady on offense. The Celtics had a chance right down to the end, but couldn't overcome their 19 turnovers. The Heat had only eight.
Miami has a chance to punch its Finals ticket in Game 5 on Friday.
Here are three takeaways from Game 4:
1. Miami always has answers
The Heat were in control for most of this game, but it's not a small thing that Boston took a one-point lead in the fourth quarter and they didn't waver. Miami wasn't shaken by Tatum's resurgence, Smart's playmaking -- he had five assists in the third quarter -- or the Celtics starting to look like themselves offensively.
This is who the Heat are. They have the personnel to respond to runs, to adjust within and between games, to attack defenses in multiple ways. Boston coach Brad Stevens accurately said that Herro was the difference in the game -- "the rim must have looked like the ocean to him," he said -- but it's not as if Miami reoriented its entire attack around the 20-year-old.
"He's not a rookie anymore," Spoelstra said. "We need his skill set. Does that mean it's going to translate into that kind of point production every night? No, it doesn't. I mean, we're not necessarily built like that. It's different guys and contributions from a lot of different guys. But Boston was jamming up, as they tend to do, first, second, sometimes third options out of what we were looking for, and Tyler was able to generate a lot offense on random situations, which you need against a very good defense."
Herro is technically still a rookie, but it was clear in the seeding games that he had improved over the hiatus. He became a more polished creator, consistently marrying his shotmaking moxie with court vision. In the playoffs, Miami has exceeded expectations by increasing Dragic's minutes, empowering Herro and playing Adebayo exclusively at center. Spoelstra always has a multitude of playmakers on the floor, a necessity against a defense as stingy as the Celtics'. For much of the fourth, he had Dragic, Herro Butler, Adebayo and Andre Iguodala on the court together.
"Tonight was my night to score," Herro said. "Next game, I'm sure it'll be different."
This is the significance of Herro's eruption. The Heat always seem to have answers, even against a team that is full of firepower, well-coached, smart and switchable. When Boston tried trapping Butler, there was Iguodala making a perfect pass out of the short roll. When it went to its small lineup, the Heat crashed the boards and Adebayo presented problems in the paint.
Herro, by the way, said he's been playing like this his whole life. "Before Kentucky, before the NBA, I grew up with the ball in my hands, making plays and making tough shots," he said. "I feel like that's my game." Then he pointed out that plenty of players don't get an opportunity like him, with coaches and teammates who trust him to do his thing on this kind of stage. Herro was erroneously labeled as a catch-and-shoot guy coming into the league, and if he were in another system, that might be who he is.
2. Boston's lament
This is so far from a typical 3-1 series -- both teams have scored a total of 441 points -- but that's cold comfort for a Celtics team that had a 20 percent turnover rate on Wednesday. Boston has generally been trying to attack the soft spots in the Heat's zone and exploit their weaker defenders in man-to-man, but its Game 3 win wasn't earned with aggressiveness alone -- it was also decisive and purposeful. For far too many possessions in the first half of Game 4, it was unclear what exactly the Celtics were trying to accomplish on offense. And after an impressive response in the third quarter, Boston got sloppy again in the fourth.
Coming into the series, I was optimistic about the Celtics based on the return of Hayward and an assumption that they'd find it easier to get in a flow against Miami than they did against the Toronto Raptors. Hayward has indeed helped, and Boston's offensive rating has jumped from 106.4 against Toronto to 113.4 in this round, but it has much less margin for error now that it is battling a Heat team that is getting so much out of their halfcourt offense.
If the state of the series were different, it would be easy to point to the Celtics' second-half comeback as a sign of good things to come. That could still be the case, but now that they're facing elimination, silver linings don't mean much. Those aimless first-half possessions loom large.
3. The Heat didn't even shoot well
Miami won a conference finals game despite Jae Crowder going 1-for-9 (and 1-for-7 from deep) and Duncan Robinson missing all five of his shots (including four 3s). Heat players not named Herro went 5-for-27 from 3-point range, and Boston equalled their 38 points in the paint.
The lesson here: Getting to the free throw line matters (Miami went 24-for-27, the Celtics 17-for-21), and taking care of the ball really matters.