MIAMI — LeBron James is on the bench nursing a cramp, Dwyane Wade has all eyes on him and the game of the Miami Heat’s season is on the line. So naturally, the play called out of the timeout was for Mario Chalmers to save the day?
Well, that’s not exactly the way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew it up in the huddle with his team clinging to a 99-96 lead with 44.6 seconds to play Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But that’s the way Chalmers envisioned it in his head (and on his arm, where the “Mr. Clutch” tattoo rests). It’s also the way it played out, with Chalmers stepping up time after time to help the Heat rally and hold off the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-98 for a crucial Game 4 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead in The Finals.
His driving layup for a 101-96 lead was the separation the Heat needed late to seal the deal and put the Thunder away. It was a moment Chalmers is familiar with, having nailed a huge shot to help Kansas win the NCAA title in 2008.
“Coming out of that timeout I told D-Wade, ‘Find me. Let’s get this win,’ ” Chalmers said. “He found me and I was able to get to the hole.”
Chalmers was able to hit his marks repeatedly, coming up with huge plays all night long as the Heat got everything they could out of their forgotten man. He was a bit player through the first three games of this series before his breakout effort in this most crucial of games for both teams.
“Mario has that thing, that thing called heart,” Wade said. “And no matter what, no matter how tough we are on him, he actually thinks he’s the best player on this team, and that’s a gift and a curse. But tonight, it was a gift for us because he never gets down on himself. He always believes, ‘Find me, I can make a shot. I can make a play.’ He was huge for us. We don’t win the game without what he did in the fourth quarter, making some baskets and going to the hole.”
Chalmers had 17 points in the first three games of this series, combined. He shredded the Thunder for 25 Tuesday night, tying his postseason career-high and matching Wade’s 25. On a night when Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was the most dominant force on the floor, it was the oft-maligned Chalmers who stole the show with the game on the line.
Westbrook scored 17 of his game-high 43 points in the fourth. Chalmers answered with 12 of his own, including the Heat’s final five points of the game. He scored 19 in the second half, helping the Heat rally from an early 17-point deficit to take control after halftime.
That driving layup, though, was the sort of play the Heat would have expected from Wade or James, not necessarily from a guy whose contributions to that point in the series didn’t rate a second look.
“That kid is not afraid of any moment,” Spoelstra said. “We all know that. He’s a gutsy kid.
“He’s a gamer. He’s got guts. You can’t quantify that. You can’t measure it. You can’t necessarily evaluate that with a kid that you’re drafting. He obviously had a big moment in college. But he’s done it time and time again in big games in college, big games in the pros. He’s not afraid of the moment, you can’t teach that.”
The Thunder had Kevin Durant guarding Chalmers for much of the night, an effort to keep Durant out of foul trouble and a clear sign that they had more important issues to worry about other than the Heat starter who hadn’t made much of an impact on the series up to that point.
“I took that as a sign of disrespect,” Chalmers said. “For me, I worked too hard to be in this position I’m in now … I know the way they’ve been playing all series they’ve been helping off of me and letting me have those shots. And I’ve just been missing them. I think they forgot about me and let me roam a little bit more tonight. Even though my offense wasn’t clicking [the first three games] in the series, I wanted to step up for my team and I was able to do that.”
An easy target for criticism on a team with a Big 3 of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, Chalmers has a prominent role on this team as the player most likely to get yelled at. But not this time, not when he stepped into the void and saved the game for the home team.
“You’ve got to love his mentality,” Bosh said. “He wants to be the best, and that’s where it starts. He puts in the work all the time and he truly believes in his talent. It really is contagious. Once you see him, you can’t help but believe in him. We’ve been staying on him because we need him. We knew coming into the season we needed him to be a better point guard, and we all had to get better, and he’s just outlasted a tremendous amount of pressure and he’s responding every time. That’s what he does.”
Rajon Rondo turned into an All-Star playing alongside the Celtics’ Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Chalmers has had to fend off not only the constant tough love from his teammates but the play of rookie Norris Cole, who looked good in early relief of Chalmers in this game.
It helps to have supreme confidence in yourself, that unshakable belief that you and no one else can do what you do. Chalmers has it in surplus, that ability to rise above the noise with a game on the line and deliver the dagger when needed.
“It’s a part of your DNA, you’re just born with it,” Wade said. “What is says on his arm, ‘Mr. Clutch,’ that clutch gene. You’ve got to be born with it. And he has it.”