MIAMI — Mario Chalmers was still awake at 5 a.m. Wednesday. He stayed up all night watching tape of his play in the last two NBA Finals, looking for answers.
The Miami Heat hope their point guard found them.
Perpetually one of the most confident guys in the Heat locker room, Chalmers is going through an absolute crisis on that front these days, at the wrong time of year. He has a total of just 10 points and nine assists through the first three games of the finals, and there will be copious pressure on him Thursday when the Heat play host to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the title series. The Spurs lead the series 2-1.
“This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever been through,” Chalmers said.
But what that challenge truly is, that remains a mystery.
He hasn’t revealed any illness or injury. He says his looming entry into free agent waters this summer isn’t occupying his mind, and some teammates have urged him to not even think about contract matters until something can be decided. He looks the same, sounds the same, acts the same, so there’s no clues to be gleaned there, either.
“He’s a point guard on a championship team and we need him. We do,” Heat star LeBron James said. “I mean, he’s been key for us throughout these runs. But obviously right now he’s been struggling a lot. But the number one thing is he can’t lose confidence in himself. Before we can give him confidence as a teammate, he has to believe in himself that he can make plays.”
Right now, that belief is lacking.
He took the game-tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in the 2008 NCAA title game, where his Kansas team topped Derrick Rose’s Memphis squad — in San Antonio, no less. His six highest-scoring games in last season’s playoffs came in the final two rounds. In the 2012 NBA Finals, he scored Miami’s last five points of Game 4 against Oklahoma City, sealing the win in a game where James was forced out in the final minute with leg cramps.
How he did those things, that’s what he was looking to glean from that late-night video session. And the one that kept him awake until the wee hours of Wednesday was hardly his first in these playoffs.
“The way I’ve been playing, it’s not rare at all,” Chalmers said.
In fairness, going up against the Spurs’ Tony Parker can make any guard look silly. In fairness again, this isn’t a recent issue, either. Chalmers has been held to single-digit scoring efforts in 12 straight games, the longest postseason slump like that in his career. He hasn’t scored more than 12 points in any game in these playoffs.
“We still have faith in him, trust in him and we need him,” Heat coach Erik 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.”
It seems like a tough spot for Spoelstra given that Chalmers is struggling — and Game 4 is basically win-or-else for the Heat. Chalmers has started all 278 of his appearances over the last three seasons, so a lineup change seems most unlikely. Spoelstra could give Norris Cole more time, get Toney Douglas into the rotation, or even ask James and Wade to do even more ballhandling.
Or Chalmers could just figure it out and fix the problem, whatever it is, himself.
“I’m a very big believer in words you use,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, who has been texting and saying words of encouragement to Chalmers often as of late. “Figure out what’s right. Don’t figure out what’s wrong. Figure out what’s right. That’s all he needs to focus on. We don’t need him to be Superman. We need him to be Mario Chalmers, solid defensive player, solid offensive player who doesn’t force anything. The more simple you make it, the easier it gets.”