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Tyler Herro had an NBA playoff game for a rookie that compares to only Magic Johnson

Tyler Herro's 37 points on Wednesday were second most in postseason history by someone younger than 21, behind only Magic Johnson in 1980. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The Miami Heat is one win away from its first trip to the NBA Finals since 2014 thanks to a 20-year-old rookie who picked the best possible time to have the night of his life.

Tyler Herro, a talented scoring guard, came off the bench to score a career-high 37 points to lead the Heat to a 112-109 victory over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Miami holds a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, with Game 5 set for Friday.

The improbable explosion put Herro, who was born in January 2000, in rare historical company. His 37 points were the second most in playoff history by anyone younger than 21, behind only Lakers legend Magic Johnson’s 42 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 Finals.

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Johnson was an NCAA champion, a household name and a top overall pick when he set his record. Herro, a Wisconsin native, was selected with the 13th pick after going one-and-done at the University of Kentucky. He started eight games as a Heat rookie but spent most of the season under the radar, settling into a second-unit scoring role and averaging 13.5 points. Herro’s moxie made him an instant fan favorite.

“I went from a small town in Milwaukee to Kentucky,” Herro said. “Nobody thought I would survive there, and nobody thought I would survive here. At the end of the day, I’m just going to bet on myself. That’s what I do, bet on myself.”

Nothing came easily on offense in Game 4 for the Heat or the Celtics, who struggled to sustain momentum and flow during a sluggish contest. Miami made just 10 of 37 three-pointers (27 percent), and Boston endured a scoreless first half from all-star forward Jayson Tatum. With the starters on both sides mostly dragging, the door opened for Herro, who also came off the bench to score 22 points and provide a much-needed spark in Game 3.

This time, Herro was even more electric, unleashing pretty moves in isolation and hitting five three-pointers to help the Heat hold off a second-half rally by the Celtics. Herro scored seven points in the game’s final 4:10, including a crucial three-pointer and a pair of free throws to give Miami a five-point lead with 13.9 seconds remaining.

“Herro’s shot-making tonight … was the difference in the game,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said. “Herro was ridiculously good tonight. The rim must have looked like the ocean.”

Jimmy Butler, Miami’s all-star forward and a key mentor to Herro this season, said that the Heat’s offensive balance has been key to its playoff push in the bubble. Three players have led the Heat in scoring during its four games against the Celtics, continuing a trend set in series wins against the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks.

“I’ve been on teams where I’ve put up a lot of shots and scored this amount of points but I haven’t won anything,” Butler said. “Obviously, that’s not the formula. Here, we all get a piece of the pie. We all hoop. It can be anybody’s night. . . . [Herro] is a rookie, but whenever he’s out there on the floor, the swag that he plays with, the moves that he makes, you’d think he’s been in the league for 10-plus years.”

Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said that he was so impressed by Herro’s fearlessness and NBA readiness by October that he felt comfortable moving him into the opening night starting lineup when he needed to fill a hole because of injury. Even so, Spoelstra said that Herro’s rookie year was full of “a lot of tough moments” and that he went through growing pains “learning about our demands on defense.”

“Everybody is looking for that signature [breakout] moment,” Spoelstra said. “That would be such a great story, right? ‘I knew that day he would be this guy.’ I think everybody overestimates what you can do in a day and underestimates what you can do in months of work and sweat and grind when nobody is watching. He is relentless with his work ethic. … It’s that daily grind when nobody is watching and doing it when most people don’t.”

Herro took his big night in stride, noting that Miami needed one more win to finish off Boston. He said that he drew motivation from wanting to help Butler reach the first Finals of his nine-year career and from pre-draft evaluations that were dubious of his physical characteristics.

“I think someone said my wingspan was too short,” Herro said. “[Analysts] say everything, but whatever they say, it’s whatever. At the end of the day, all you can do is work at it, perfect your craft, come in with a great attitude and just respect everybody in the building. Good things will happen from there. It’s just about putting in the work and really putting in time and effort to something you love.”

The Celtics are back on their heels and facing elimination, needing to work through a host of offensive issues. Tatum’s slow start was baffling, point guard Kemba Walker has struggled with Miami’s defensive length, and Boston’s bench hasn’t found many ways to contribute. The Heat’s 2-3 zone defense has kept the Celtics out of rhythm and encouraged lesser shooters, such as Marcus Smart, to bomb away. Smart shot just 1 for 8 from beyond the arc in Game 4.

But Wednesday night was about what Herro did, not what the Celtics failed to do. The youngest player on either roster took an ugly game and turned in a beautiful individual performance.

“He’s done this,” Butler said, making sure that Herro alone received credit for his progress this season. “He’s worked at it. He’s studied the film. He’s the one that’s in the gym. He’s the one that’s communicating like a vet to the vets. He did that. I didn’t do it. Nobody else did it. [Spoelstra] didn’t do it. We just pump him with a lot of confidence, and I think he pumped himself with twice as much confidence. He goes out there and he performs. That’s on him. That’s on nobody else.”

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