MIAMI — He is the starting point guard of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat and also hit one of the biggest shots in NCAA Finals history six years ago. Mario Chalmers has lasted this long in the NBA by being oblivious to criticism, except from his teammates.
Those teammates cannot camouflage their surprise and disappointment in Chalmers’s performance during the first three games of the NBA Finals. But there will be no changes. Chalmers will have figure out the root of his struggles — hopefully quickly for the Heat.
Chalmers has been abysmal when the team has needed him most, committing more fouls in the series (12) than scoring points (10) with a ghastly 9-to-8 assist-to-turnover ratio that has given the Spurs full advantage in the backcourt. Meanwhile, backup Norris Cole is 4 for 15 from the field in the series and 1 for 6 from the 3-point line, most of those open looks.
So the point guard position has been one of consternation for Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who doesn’t have many options besides Chalmers.
“You want him to know we still have faith in him, trust in him and we need him,” Spoelstra said. “And he’s been able to play through tough times and been able to bounce back. Look, he’s not the only guy that’s been struggling at some point, and the most important thing is you have an opportunity to help and impact a win in the next game.”
Chalmers has always brimmed with confidence. Similar to Rajon Rondo’s role in 2007-08, he was handed the assignment as floor general for the Miami’s Big Three and was instructed to facilitate the offense, hit the open shot and nothing more.
He’s had a series of triumphs and difficult times in the past four years, but had been able to overcome those issues with some monumental plays. This slump, he said, is bigger than he has faced previously.
“This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever been through,” he said. “It’s tough to actually let it go, just because you keep hearing about it, people keep asking what’s wrong. It’s tough to get away from it. But at the same time, it gives me more confidence in myself because people are expecting [success] from me. People know what I can do. It’s a gift and curse.
“It’s tough but I’ll get over. Got another game tomorrow. That’s the best thing about it.”
Suddenly in the spotlight
Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the most anonymous player on the Spurs roster, a physical behemoth who speaks few words and was visibly uncomfortable with the attention following his 29-point Game 3. Leonard is finishing his third season with the Spurs, a team with three franchise cornerstones in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan.
“When I first got drafted by the Spurs, I knew who I was playing with and I knew what type of system they played,” Leonard said. “So I just knew I wasn’t going to get the ball right away or just be a focal point with these great players on the team.
“But now I just try to play my game and go out there and be aggressive.”
Duncan, also reclusive with the media, said Leonard will eventually warm to the adulation.
“It’s going to take time with him. He’s going to get more comfortable,” Duncan said. “He’s getting more comfortable, just like he is on the court. He continues to play like that and he’s going to do a lot more of it. But he’ll have fun with it at some point, and he’ll find his own rhythm. There is nothing you can tell him. You just go out there and sit down and try not to say anything stupid.”
Duncan recalls the first time he watched Leonard playing in San Antonio during the lockout summer.
“I thought he had a lot of work to do. He wasn’t shooting the ball like he does now,” Duncan said. “But [coach Gregg Popovich] and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way. Last year I think he really got his confidence and understood what had he to do, and he continues to evolve year after year. This year you can see when he gets in a groove like that, he can be special.”
Popovich said he wants Leonard to develop his own game and personality.
“I think everybody has to be their own person when they deal with the media, and Kawhi has done a great job,” the coach said. “He’s a really respectful, polite young man, and he speaks less than Timmy ever did. So I think it’s going to take a long time for him to get really comfortable, but I don’t think you’re ever going to get him to sit down and expound on a whole lot of things. He just wants to do his job. He wants to be a great player and go home. That’s basically who he is.”