MIAMI – Oh joy, Mario Chalmers soon might have LeBron James yelling at him again.
Actually, James offered that possibility with the very best of intentions, as a tactic to jar Chalmers – the Miami Heat’s often-irritating, widely criticized point guard – out of a confidence crisis here in The 2014 Finals.
Through three games, Chalmers was averaging 3.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.0 turnovers in 23.4 minutes. He has been called for 12 fouls, including a flagrant 1 when he jammed his elbow into Tony Parker‘s ribs in Game 2. The sixth-year guard has taken 12 shots and missed nine of them, including four of his five from 3-point range.
Neither he nor backup Norris Cole has risen to the moment, not so much undermining what the Heat have tried to do but not making anything easy, either. Which is what the Miami point guards are expected to do, given their second or third level of responsibility in the team’s pecking order.
That’s why James was talking about going back to an old approach with Chalmers, who traditionally has been more of a kick-in-the-rear than pat-on-the-back guy.
“Obviously, it’s weighing on him,” James said Wednesday on the series off-day at AmericanAirlines Arena. “It’s in his head right now, I think. He hasn’t said much. … But he can’t lose confidence in himself.
“As a leader, I’m going to give him as much confidence as I can, and I’m going to stay on him. Maybe I need to get back on him like I used to do in the past, when you guys used to see me really get on him. I’ve kind of laid off of him. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do.”
We’ve all seen that. It was as much a part of Heat culture in the Big 3 era – which Chalmers predated by two seasons, by the way – as LeBron’s headband/hairline watch and breathless updates on Dwyane Wade‘s knees. It was James or Wade or both airing out Chalmers for some on-court mistake, bossy big brothers pointing out their younger sibling’s mistakes.
Chalmers always took it, and the two Heat stars seemed to back off recently, either figuring he’d learned from their lessons or because they got tired of repeating themselves. The bottom line wasn’t bad, by the way: Four straight Eastern Conference titles, two consecutive championships with a shot now for a third.
But now Chalmers has regressed. He averaged 31.6 minutes in the 2013 Finals, along with 10.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 38.8 percent overall and 40.6 from the arc. During an inconsistent 2013-14 season, his corresponding stats: 29.8 minutes, 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 45.4 percent shooting and 38.5 percent on 3FGs.
San Antonio has noticed, but just to be safe is treating any decline in Chalmers’ play as a fluke. “We know that when he has a big game, usually Miami wins,” Parker said Wednesday. “So he’s a big X-factor, and we talked about it. Coach [Gregg Popovich] challenged me to make sure I have big games defensively, because last year he had a couple of big games and they won those games.”
Chalmers and the Heat would happily take one such performance now.
“Yeah, we have trust in Rio,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I don’t want him to shoulder the full responsibility.”
Trouble is, Chalmers sounds as if he does. That and more, in fact, based on his impending free agency and the likelihood that his struggles now will hurt his market value more than his two rings boost it.
It doesn’t help that Chalmers is handling this different than his big brothers would. James, when feeling heat or a need to lock in, unplugs from social media and, lately, talks openly about his belief that he is the “easiest target in sports.” Chris Bosh does what he can to ignore criticism and tell himself it doesn’t matter.
But Chalmers goes home after Game 3 and stays up until 5 a.m., going over video of the three games so far in this Finals and parts of all seven of the 2013 edition.
“To figure out attacking points and what I’m doing wrong,” Chalmers told a few wave of reporters who found him during the Heat’s media availability Wednesday, far from the podiums or lecterns. He was seated near some Heat deep reserves in the bench area, obscured from view by the folks standing near him.
So what did Chalmers see that has been lacking? “Just my energy, really, that’s the main thing,” he said. “I need to bring more energy to the game. [Last year] I was disruptive on the defensive end, which led to more breaks on the offensive end, more opportunities.”
This year, Chalmers has mostly just fouled, a pest running into Spurs players in the open court in a bad habit he’s developed though the years. For a guy who has been described as cocky at times in his career, seeing and hearing how rattled he is is a bit disconcerting.
“This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever been through,”Chalmers said. “It’s actually very tough right now. But I’ve just got to keep believing. I know my teammates trust in me, the coaching staff trusts in me. I just have to keep believing in myself.”
Chalmer said Bosh, in particular, has tried to lift him out of his funk. “Sent me a text message [before Game 2] since I was on the first bus,” he said. “Y’know, ‘Let everything go. Stop thinking so much on the court and just play the basketball you’ve been playing your whole life.’ “
Easier quoted than done at this stage. As eager as his Heat cohorts are that Chalmers get going, the Spurs are committed to him sputtering.
James and Spoelstra talked for a while about Miami’s efforts to build up Chalmers, remind him of the good times and get him going within the team concept. Either it’s going to get better for him and his team or, with the series zipping by, it’s going to get worse.
“You can give a guy as much confidence as you want,” James said, “but when a guy loses confidence in himself, it can be all downhill.”