The NBA playoffs are generally known as the time when coaches tighten their rotations and play their starters for heavy minutes. But over the years, the postseason has also seen some incredible performances from players off the bench. Miami’s Tyler Herro was the latest player to deliver such a performance, as he torched the Boston Celtics for 37 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In doing so, the rookie joined an exclusive list of reserve players who shone brightest for their teams in the postseason.
Here are some of the greatest playoff performances off the bench over the years:
6. Nate Robinson – Game 4, 2013 First Round vs. Brooklyn
Robinson played just one season for the Chicago Bulls, but his playoff run with the team in 2013 was a memorable one. That includes his performance in Game 4 of the Bulls’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, when the 5-foot-9 guard came off the bench to score 34 points in 29 minutes, 23 of which came in the fourth quarter. Chicago trailed for most of the game and was still down 109-95 with about three minutes left in regulation. That was when Robinson went off, scoring 12 points on a variety of acrobatic lay-ups, off-balance floaters, and difficult jumpers to lead a furious 16-2 Bulls run to force overtime.
23 fourth-quarter points are just one point shy of the franchise record for most points in a playoff game set by Michael Jordan. That’s Robinson fouled out by the second overtime, but his teammates were able to pull out a thrilling 142-134 triple-overtime win over the Nets to take a 3-1 lead in the series, eventually winning in seven games. Robinson later likened himself to the game NBA Jam when he’s on fire, which is a fitting comparison.
5. Goran Dragic – Game 3, 2010 Conference Semifinals vs. San Antonio
If there’s someone who knows how to make an impact in the playoffs while playing off the bench, it’s Herro’s teammate Dragic, who used the 2010 NBA Playoffs as his coming out party. Back then, the Slovenian guard was a back-up to Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns, which was battling rival San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Semifinals. The fourth quarter of Game 3 began with the Spurs up, 72-71, but when the final buzzer sounded, the Suns had taken a 110-96 victory and moved to within a game of sweeping the Spurs.
What happened? Dragic, who started the fourth period, scored 23 of his 26 points in the final 12 minutes, making all 11 of his shots, including four 3-pointers. He was supposed to give Nash a few minutes of rest, but he ended up turning an incredible performance, scoring 23 of the Suns’ 39 fourth-quarter points while Nash and his teammates cheered him on from the bench. Phoenix would go on to sweep San Antonio and advance to the Conference Finals, exacting revenge on a team that had eliminated them in the postseason for four straight seasons. This prompted his teammate Grant Hill to call it “the greatest fourth-quarter performance I’ve ever seen in a playoff game.”
4. Tyler Herro – Game 4, 2020 Conference Finals vs. Boston
Herro had the game of his life so far in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, erupting for 37 points off the bench to help the Heat beat the Celtics, 112-109, to take a 3-1 lead in their series. Making the feat more impressive is that at 20 years old, he is also the youngest player to compete in the Conference Finals. But instead of being in college, he is torching Boston’s defense and is on the verge of playing in the NBA Finals.
Herro made 14 of 21 shots, including five triples, to go with six rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes. He joins Magic Johnson as the only 20-year old to score at least 37 points in a playoff game. With Miami still in the midst of their playoff run, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the rookie continue rewriting the record books. Not bad for someone who was only named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
3. Vinnie Johnson – Game 4, 1985 Conference Semifinals vs. Boston
Johnson earned the nickname “The Microwave” while playing for the Detroit Pistons for his ability to quickly heat up on offense. That was never more apparent than in Game 4 of the 1985 Conference Semifinals against the Celtics. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Pistons found themselves down 87-76 and on the verge of going down 3-1. That was when Johnson decided that he wasn’t going to let Detroit lose that night.
He would go on to score 22 of the Pistons’ 26 fourth-quarter points, hitting jumpers from all over the floor and shooting over any Boston defender thrown his way. He made 16 of 21 shots from the field and added two rebounds and three assists. He outscored the Celtics by himself, 22-12, as Detroit rallied to take a 102-99 win and tie the series at two games. The Celtics rebounded and took the next two games to win the series, but Johnson’s performance remains one of the best in the playoffs for a reserve player.
2. Nick Van Exel – Game 3, 2003 Conference Semifinals vs. Sacramento
While Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley spearheaded the Dallas Mavericks’ attack during their 2003 playoff run, it was Nick Van Exel who served as their sixth man. His offensive arsenal was on full display in the Conference Semifinals against the Kings. In Game 2, Van Exel scored 36 points off the bench. But his best performance came in Game 3, when he dropped 40 points, the second-highest scoring performance by a reserve in a playoff game.
He helped Dallas overcome an early 16-point deficit, then scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-tying basket to force overtime. Van Exel made 14-of-26 shots, including 6-of-12 on 3-pointers, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. The Mavericks went on to win in double overtime, 141-137, and eventually prevailed in seven games to reach the Conference Finals.
1. Stephen Curry – Game 4, 2016 Conference Semifinals vs. Portland
It’s unusual to see the greatest shooter the NBA has ever seen on a list of the greatest playoff performances off the bench, but that’s exactly what happened on May 9, 2016. With Curry still recovering from a sprained right knee, the two-time NBA MVP came off the bench in Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers. He was expected to play for around 25 minutes to slowly ease him back into the Warriors rotation. But he had to play longer when guard Shaun Livingston, who had replaced him in the starting lineup, was ejected for arguing a call. Early in the game, it appeared as if Curry was still rusty from the long lay-off, missing his first nine 3-pointers.
Then the fourth quarter came and Curry reminded everyone why he was the league’s unanimous MVP that season. He made his first 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and didn’t look back, going on one of his usual scoring binges and ending up with 40 points, including an NBA playoff record 17 points in overtime. His 40 points also tied him with Van Exel for second-most points scored off the bench in a playoff game. Curry made 16 of 32 shots and added nine rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes of play to help the Warriors take a 132-125 overtime win and take a 3-1 series lead, proving that he had recovered from his injury and was as deadly as ever.