The 20-year-old rookie scored 17 of his career-high 37 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Heat to a 112-109 victory and a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. His 37 points are the most by a 20-year-old in the playoffs since Magic Johnson’s 42 in 1980. Only one other rookie has scored more than Herro and Johnson in a playoff game: Wilt Chamberlain.
“Herro’s shotmaking tonight was the difference in the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters. “Herro was ridiculously good tonight. The rim must have looked like the ocean to him.”
Celtics fans need no reminder that Herro was potentially a coin flip away from being in Boston. The Heat won a tiebreaker for the 13th pick in last year’s draft, selecting Herro, who the Celtics reportedly coveted. Boston drafted 14th, another win in Pat Riley’s corner against rival executive Danny Ainge.
Herro finished 14-for-21 from the field, converting half of his 10 three-point attempts and salvaging an otherwise abysmal offensive night for Miami. His Heat teammates collectively shot 35 percent. It was a gut-check performance from the University of Kentucky product, and the check cleared. The beauty of the kid’s shooting stroke was only outshined by the confidence with which he unfurled it.
“I’m just blown away,” Miami’s Goran Dragic told ESPN of Herro’s first 30-point game since high school. “This kid is unbelievable. He’s not afraid of big moments. It’s not the first time he’s shown this kind of a game. We’ve known all season he can ball. You can see he’s an unbelievable talent.”
Heat star Jimmy Butler found Herro for a cutting layup that gave them a 107-98 lead with less than a minute remaining, but the Celtics cut the deficit to 109-107 with 9.2 seconds left on three-pointers from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and a trio of free throws by Kemba Walker. Boston would get no closer, running out of time as Butler sank three of his four free-throw attempts down the stretch.
Butler, Dragic and Bam Adebayo also eclipsed 20 points. The remaining Heat combined for nine.
The Celtics submitted a lackluster first-half effort with the series in the balance, committing 11 of their 19 turnovers. Tatum registered his first scoreless half of the season, missing all six of his shots in the first two quarters. Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward collectively shot 3-for-12 in the half.
“I take a lot of blame,” Tatum told reporters after the loss. “I didn’t play like myself in the first half.”
Miami pushed its lead to 12 early in the third quarter, but Tatum awoke, scoring 16 of his 28 second-half points to draw the Celtics within a point entering the fourth. Boston took its first lead of the second half, 85-84, when Brown found Daniel Theis for an easy dunk with nine minutes left.
An Adebayo putback restored Miami’s lead, and Herro followed with five straight points to push the advantage back to six, leaving Boston scrambling. Careless turnovers continued to plague the Celtics, and each of their made baskets was met with a Heat answer, mostly daggers by Herro. No increase in Boston’s effort as the minutes dwindled could erase the damage the rookie had done.
Particularly brutal was the play of Smart in the fourth quarter. He consistently killed Boston’s momentum. His second straight turnover led to a fast-break Herro layup and a six-point deficit with 6:49 remaining. Smart’s ill-advised 26-footer turned into a Herro three and an eight-point hole with 4:09 to go. And another Smart turnover resulted in the Herro layup that put Miami up 107-98.
It was Smart’s locker-room blowup after similar mistakes in Game 2 that seemed to spur a wire-to-wire Game 3 victory. There were no thrown chairs or verbal confrontations on Wednesday night, at least not that the media could plainly hear from the corridor. Only desperation remains for Boston.
The Celtics have led in the fourth quarter of each game in the conference finals, but they will enter Friday’s Game 5 needing a win to stay alive. There is some concern for Miami beyond the frailty of a 3-1 lead in the Orlando bubble. Adebayo, their All-Star center, injured his non-shooting wrist in the fourth quarter. He clutched it throughout the game’s final minutes and had it under ice afterwards.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gave no update beyond, “He just has a lot of ice on his body. Everybody is earning their ice.” Adebayo told reporters he merely twisted his left wrist. “I’m good,” he said.
Facing a close-out game on Friday, Boston can only hope Herro’s hot hand finds some of that ice.
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