There’s a bit of player evaluation wisdom that Tom Thibodeau shared with Sports Illustrated back in 2015 that’s still stuck in my head, a couple of lifetimes later: “If they don’t bite as puppies, they usually don’t bite.”
Thibs, then the Bulls’ head coach, offered that nugget by way of explaining and praising Jimmy Butler, a surprise rising star. The famously grizzled coach recalled Butler “biting right from the start”—a trait that, when paired with his physical gifts and work ethic, gave him a real chance to outperform his end-of-the-first-round draft position and become something special. That year, Butler made his first All-Star team.
Butler’s brand of bite proved a bit too bracing for executives, teammates, and coaches in Chicago (and eventually in Minnesota and Philadelphia, too), but it seems to have found a home in Miami, in part because the Heat have long aimed to populate their entire organization with exactly those types of dogs. They got one in center Bam Adebayo, who established his attitudinal bona fides by snarling through his predraft workout and blossoming in his third season into an All-Star, All-Defensive Second Teamer, runner-up for Most Improved Player, and the model of a modern two-way big man.
And man, does it look like they got another in Tyler Herro—the preternaturally self-possessed rookie who calmly dropped a goddamn building on the Celtics in Game 4 on Wednesday night, scoring 37 points in 35 minutes off the bench, and powering Miami to within one win of its first NBA Finals berth since LeBron James went back to Cleveland.
“Herro’s shotmaking tonight was ... the difference in the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the rookie, who finished 14-of-21 from the field and 5-of-10 from 3-point range. “Jimmy was great late. Adebayo was his typical self. [Goran] Dragic made some big plays. But Herro was ridiculously good tonight. That rim must have looked like the ocean to him.”
Herro’s relentless scorching of the postseason’s no. 1 defense stands as the pinnacle of his basketball career to date; when you set a rookie record for most points ever in the conference finals and join Magic Johnson as the highest-scoring 20-year-olds in playoff history, it seems safe to say that’s something of a high point. It also, however, represents precisely the sort of performance that Herro wholeheartedly believes himself capable of every time he takes the court.
This is a young man who shrugged off death threats in his home state of Wisconsin after decommitting from the Badgers because he knew—unmistakably, unflinchingly, in his bones—that he belonged at a blue blood like Kentucky. After starting all 37 games for John Calipari as a freshman, earning SEC Newcomer of the Year honors, and becoming the 13th pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Herro entered the league rocking this fit:
When Tyler Herro showed up to the draft in this suit I knew he’d be a bucket. He plays like a dude who’d wear this suit pic.twitter.com/yscRarHNVj— friendard cohen (@lesterfreamon) September 2, 2020
Upon his arrival in Miami, he joined Butler’s ostentatiously early morning workouts and promptly started talking trash to the $140 million multiple-time All-Star. Before he even safely exited his maiden preseason, he was already refusing to back down from veteran defenders, even if it meant getting himself tossed:
MCW pushes off Tyler Herro on offense...Herro hits a 3 on the other end of the court and gets in MCW's face....MCW gets ejected later in the game for going after Herro pic.twitter.com/AYfVYmkfjm— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 18, 2019
A puppy, biting.
“I’m just confident,” Herro told reporters during training camp. “That’s just me trying to prove myself every time I step on the court against whoever I’m playing against. I try to prove I’m the best player on the court every time I step out there.”
That drive, and the game that came with it, has endeared Herro to Miami’s vets. “He’s a player, man,” Butler said before the season. “He is going to be big for us, big for this city. They are going to fall in love with him, as they should.”
Herro carved out a role in Spoelstra’s rotation’s last fall as a 19-year-old and proved he could be an instant contributor on a damn good Heat team, producing a statistical profile that compared favorably to the first-year output of dynamic scorers like Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray. (That Herro’s breakthrough performance came one night after Murray buried the Lakers in the latest dazzling outing of his watershed postseason is a serendipitous bit of coincidence.) But some inconsistent play on both ends and a month on the shelf with a right ankle injury derailed the rookie; the league’s suspension due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic allowed him to both get fully healthy and focus on off-court development.
Throughout the hiatus, Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn fed Herro video clips so that he could study stuff like “how Ray Allen moves without the ball,” “how Steve Nash manipulates the defense in pick-and-roll,” and “how Devin Booker and CJ McCollum operate as both playmakers and scorers with the ball in their hands,” according to Couper Moorhead of Heat.com. All that studying has paid off handsomely: Herro has taken a major leap forward since play resumed in Orlando, scoring more, doing so more efficiently, and looking significantly more comfortable handling the ball and creating off the dribble.
Herro’s Journey to the Bubble
With Dragic now in the starting lineup, Herro often runs the show for Miami’s second unit—a new responsibility in his first postseason. And yet, despite the added workload, his assist rate has spiked, his turnover rate has stayed low, and his patience and awareness as a playmaker have advanced dramatically ...
… as has his swaggering penchant for scoring at all three levels with no small amount of panache:
That combination, along with continued improvement on the other end—specifically as a possession-ending rebounder; he’s got the fifth-highest defensive rebound rate of any guard this postseason—has earned him the trust of his teammates and coaches at the most pressure-packed time of year. Only Adebayo, Butler, and Dragic have logged more minutes for Miami this postseason; only Adebayo and Butler have played more against Boston. And after his Game 4 explosion, only seven players have scored as many points in a single game this postseason: two MVPs, four All-Stars, and Murray, who’s playing like he belongs in that sort of rarefied air. This is the type of company that Herro’s put himself in with all that self-belief and all that work.
“I think everybody overestimates what you can do in a day, and they underestimate what you can do in months of work and sweat and grind, when nobody is watching,” Spoelstra said Wednesday.
Everybody’s going to be watching now—waiting to see if the kid’s got an encore in store to end Boston’s season and send the Heat to a Finals appearance that few would’ve predicted six months ago. The odds are against Herro doing this again to close the Celtics out. But be honest: With the run Miami’s on, and the boundless confidence oozing out of this kid’s every pore, how much would you be willing to wager that he won’t?
“I’m just going to bet on myself,” Herro told reporters after Game 4. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. I went from a small town in Milwaukee to Kentucky, and nobody thought I would survive there and nobody thought I would survive here. At the end of the day, it’s just betting on myself.”
The returns have been enormous so far—and they could get even bigger for the Heat, in the pursuit of this year’s title and the next few after it. In two seasons time, as the contracts of several veterans cycle off the books, Miami will have the salary cap space to bid for the services of another superstar-caliber player. Butler’s arrival was intended as the first major step in building the next great Heat team; getting Jimmy made Miami a real team again, and showed everybody that Spoelstra, Pat Riley, and Co. were still serious players. But Adebayo being so good so fast, and Herro flashing this much potential this early—possibly a pair of All-Stars, plucked in the middle of the first round—might be what throws open the Heat’s competitive window wide enough for another superstar to climb through and make Miami a perennial championship contender again.
Those are, admittedly, enormous aspirations. But runs like the one the Heat have been on allow an organization to dream big, and outings like the one Herro delivered on Wednesday make it easier to believe they can come true. You doubt that marriage of talent and tenacity at your own peril; as Adebayo said Wednesday, “Nothing Tyler does surprises me.” You can understand why. He’s been biting since Day 1.