The words rolled off Tyler Herro’s lips as easily as the clutch buckets released from his fingertips on a career night when asked why he selected “Black Lives Matter” on his jersey nameplate.
“Because Black lives matter,” he responded without a hint of sarcasm or annoyance but with the same force that was necessary and shocking given the gravity of the day — and his own day.
The Miami Heat moved one win away from reaching their first NBA Finals since 2014 after a 112-109 Game 4 victory over the Boston Celtics, with an unexpected 37-point explosion from Herro, joining the ranks of Magic Johnson and Derrick Rose as rookie wonders in the postseason. In other words, the Miami Heat system working as it was designed to.
Hours earlier, the state where Herro played one year of college ball, Kentucky, did the expected as a grand jury refused to indict the officers for their roles in the death of Breonna Taylor six months ago. In other words, the justice system working as it was designed to.
Like most in the NBA bubble, compartmentalizing is what’s expected from the Heat. Keeping sane in a restrictive environment while being away from family, friends and creature comforts, playing high-level competitive basketball, and oh yeah, being reminded of what’s hovered over the country for the last several months every time you put on a jersey.
More than the other conference finalists, the Heat have dictated the terms of engagement on the floor. They can play your way, but it’s better when they play their own way. For what they lack in talent, they make up for in dedication to staying in character for longer stretches than anyone else.
Herro may have played out of character given his absence in the Rookie of the Year balloting, where teammate Kendrick Nunn finished second behind Ja Morant. But anyone watching him could see this long arc bending toward his brand of victory, his confidence brimming but not obnoxious, or corny or phony.
“I’m gonna bet on myself,” Herro said, a notion backed up by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s claims that Herro’s no longer a rookie, and that his work ethic earned the respect and trust of his teammates — an aspect more critical than the trust from the coaching staff.
Never did he look rushed or hurried or overwhelmed by the moment or the day itself, perhaps taking a cue from the man who was the ultimate “bet on myself” type, Jimmy Butler.
For three days, Butler had to endure lightweight calls to be more assertive, especially considering Game 3 was on the table and could’ve been pushed over the top if he summoned a superstar performance. It’s very much his moment, his validation, but seizing it isn’t as conventional and linear as some have seen it with others on this stage.
But he’s played the long game this entire season, eschewing the thirst for the raw numbers to throw in the faces of the organizations who didn’t believe he could lead. Instead, he has preferred to instill confidence in guys who at any moment could be the guy in a critical situation.
“I’ve been on teams where I put up a lot of shots, scored a lot of points, never went anywhere,” Butler said. “Here, it can be anybody’s night.”
Whether it’s Bam Adebayo or Goran Dragic, the avalanche of domination can come from anywhere, validating Butler’s belief in his teammates.
If nothing else, you see the method to his madness, or perceived passivity.
‘If you didn’t know my name, it could be me’
When Butler refused one of the twenty-something NBA-approved names or statements each player could wear on his jersey nameplate and wanting his to be blank, he looked as if he were a man going rogue, not wanting to be either unified or bold.
But Breonna Taylor was a nameless, faceless person we didn’t know about until she was no more. Everybody’s saying her name, but we’d be better off not knowing it.
“If you didn’t know my name, it could be me,” Butler said, explaining his reasoning for his blank nameplate wishes. “It still could be me. We’re all equal. We need everybody to see it that way.”
Butler said he hopes the news of the day makes the world see his logic without having to squint or ask for more elaboration, considering the blank slate of justice that has been left unfilled.
"It’s some BS they let that go down like that," Butler said. "We know what should’ve happened. I think we knew what was gonna happen, unfortunately. That’s our country for you. You hate to see it."
Miami dictates the terms of engagement on the floor in a way they cannot influence it off the floor. Miami Heat czar Pat Riley isn’t a Kentucky native but was a Wildcat under coach Adolph Rupp when Kentucky went against the All-Black starting five of Texas Western 54 years ago.
No one knows how Riley felt about losing a national title game under such circumstances, but he went into the winner’s locker room that night and shook hands, and has attended reunions of the historic event time and time again.
Riley, and by proxy Spoelstra, are not shy about playing games on their terms. It’s not a way, like an option for the Heat; It’s the only way. Perhaps that’s why Spoelstra has been so adamant about his frustration with the state of affairs with racism and justice in these cases. It’s been just as dogged as his determination to keep everything in the present, to not look ahead to getting back to the Finals just yet.
“Stay in the moment,” he routinely says, his eyes trying to hide the excitement as his team is on the doorstep of something so unexpected in this unconventional setup. But the day called for equal parts jubilation and frustration, one task unfulfilled and draining, the other exhilarating and exhausting.
Spoelstra tried not to gush too much about Herro’s exploits, crediting the work. But in his own way, he could’ve been chiding a system that left so many of us unsurprised and heartbroken at the same time.
“Everyone overestimates what you can do in a day and underestimates what you can do over the course of months or a year.”
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