Playoffs 2020 | East Finals: (3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat

'Veteran rookie' Herro's special night has Heat 1 win from Finals

Fearless, confident 20-year-old comes up big in 4th quarter to give Miami 3-1 lead over Boston

Rookie this, rookie that. The time stamps and age references were flying around fast and furious Wednesday during and after Miami’s 112-109 victory over Boston in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, what with Heat wing Tyler Herro’s remarkable 37-point performance.

Sure, what Herro did — tormenting the Celtics in a game they desperately needed, carrying Miami until a few of his teammates found some offensive rhythm — was special. Special for anyone and, yes, especially special for a rookie.

But let’s not forget that Herro is in the late stages of the longest NBA rookie season ever.

His rookie year has been, literally, nearly a year.

> Game 5: Heat vs. Celtics, Friday at 8:30 ET on ESPN

Five seasons in one: Fall, winter, spring, summer and fall again.

“At this point, we’re past that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Herro’s level of experience after his team went up 3-1 in the series, improved to 11-2 in the bubble postseason and moved within one victory of its first Finals since 2014.

“He’s not a rookie anymore. 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.”

More like once every 40 years or so. Herro still is just 20 years old. (He won’t turn 21 until Jan. 20, by which time his second NBA season might be underway.)

And there only has been one player age 20 or younger in NBA playoff history who scored more than Herro’s 37. Magic Johnson, who did it in one of the league’s greatest individual performances ever. Johnson jumped the opening tap on May 16, 1980, for injured and absent Lakers captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. He then scored 42 points in 47 minutes, grabbed 15 rebounds, passed for seven assists, had three steals and shot 14-of-14 from the foul line in what became the title clincher over the Sixers in Philadelphia.

Herro’s stats line and timing wasn’t quite so dramatic. But he got his 37 points in less than 36 minutes, shooting 14-for-21 and 5-for-10 on 3-pointers. He made all four of his free throws, had six rebounds and three assists and a pesky minus-4 rating.

But the when of Herro’s production was as vital as the what. Through three quarters, he had 20 points hitting eight of 12 shots, when the rest of Miami’s squad was 19-for-54 (35.2%). Then the rookie – er, veteran rookie – scored 17 more in the fourth, including three buckets early in the period after the Celtics had gotten within a single possession.

They were the sort of shots a young player might not even be willing to take, never mind be calm enough to make.

“The context of those makes – you know, [those] are the big separators in this league, and those are pressure shots,” Spoelstra said. “ He was making plays at the end of the clock, you know, and that’s a skill set that he has.”

Herro has had it for a while, at least in fledgling stages, dating back to his play at Whitnall High School in Greenfield, Wis., just southwest of Milwaukee. He averaged nearly 33 points there, earning interest from Wisconsin and other top schools.

He committed, then de-committed, to the Badgers, opting for Kentucky for one season. His 60 3-pointers and 14.0 scoring average as a freshman were only enough to boost him to No. 13 in the 2019 Draft. He went in the middle of three Wildcats first-round picks that night.

To him, there’s no pressure or anything.”

JImmy Butler on Herro

“I think someone said my wingspan was too short,” Herro recalled late Wednesday. “They say everything but, you know, whatever they say, it’s whatever.”

Exactly. By the time Herro got to Las Vegas nearly 15 months ago with the Heat’s summer league entry, some of his potential was evident even for an reporter to see. Watching Herro effortlessly get to his spots in pregame warmups and games, rising gracefully with a quick release and landing as if on foam, it seemed clear Miami had snagged a keeper.

So much so that when a rumor surfaced of a possible trade for Russell Westbrook in the days after the Heat acquired Jimmy Butler – and Herro was mentioned as a piece in the deal – Miami passed. Or at least could feel good about what never happened, given Herro’s development and high ceiling.

So when was the Heat’s “Eureka!” breakthrough with the kid, when the coaches and the front office knew he might one day do, well, what he did in Game 4?

“I don’t know,” Spoelstra said. “ I know like everybody is looking for that signature moment. That would be such a great story, right? ‘I knew that day he would be this guy.’ I think everybody over estimates what you can do in a day and what you can do in months of work and sweat and grind when nobody is watching.”

Herro’s coach used the word “relentless” to describe his work ethic, and there were times in the season when defensively he could not meet Spoelstra’s or the team’s expectations. He also lost 15 games to a right ankle injury, playing a total of 36 minutes in February.

Throughout, though, Miami’s veterans kept encouraging and testing Herro, getting him through – till the virus shutdown, anyway – his first NBA season. Of particular help was Jimmy Butler, who channeled his rookie season as the No. 30 pick in 2011 and the help he got from Chicago vets such as Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.

To see Herro now, after his Game 4 performance, Butler said, “makes all of us smile. We’re all so happy for him because he knows what he’s capable of, and he just plays with so much confidence.

“To him, there’s no pressure or anything.”

Spoelstra said that having teammates’ trust is what makes a game like Herro had possible, and the young wing agreed.

“It’s everything, really, everything,” he said.

So now the achievements pile up. Herro has scored at least 10 points in each of Miami’s 13 playoff games so far. In NBA playoff history for rookies, that matches Lakers legend Elgin Baylor (in 1959) and trails only Boston’s Jayson Tatum (14 in 2018) and Phoenix’s Alvan Adams (19 in 1976) in the 50 years that stat has been tracked.

He has scored 214 points off the bench this postseason, third most by a rookie reserve. The Spurs’ Manu Ginobili scored 221 in 2003 and Philadelphia’s Andrew Toney had 221 in 1981.

Spoelstra joked that Herro’s teammates and coaches would “absolutely crush him [Thursday] to keep him humble,” then immediately walked it back. He touted the kid’s “fearlessness” and “great competitive humility.”

Which were evident once Herro sat down for, in a non-bubble postseason, would have been what’s known as a “podium game.” Instead, he sat on a folding chair on the floor, wearing a Phillies ball cap and naturally a mask that obscured any hero shots.

Didn’t matter.

“I’m just going to bet on myself,” Herro said, explaining his deep confidence. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. I went from, you know, a small town in Milwaukee to Kentucky, and nobody thought I would survive there. And nobody thought I would survive here. Obviously there’s a lot of factors that play into it but at the end of the day, I’m just going to bet on myself.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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