Mario Chalmers has hit big shots before – we all remember his game-tying three that sent the 2008 NCAA National Championship game to overtime. Last year, in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, he responded to a Dirk three-pointer with one of his own, tying the game at 93 with 24 seconds left. In the conventional sense, this is clutch: big shots in big moments that induce Mike Breen‘s “BANG!! (Insert Name)!!!” This is also the definition we have so stringently and conveniently attributed to LeBron, the one area where he hasn’t totally overwhelmed.
Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals lacked that particular moment. Boston ran out of gas, the game got slightly out of hand and that was that. LeBron was in his element, seemingly hell-bent on forging a new legacy, beginning with Game 6 in Boston, one where he took all the shots, and won the game. Everyone fell by the wayside, and deservedly so. When LeBron does his LeBron thing, there’s no better NBA option.
In the grand scheme of Game 7, we’ll look at LeBron’s 17 free throw attempts, 32 points and 12 rebounds, Dwyane Wade‘s complementary 23-6-6, Chris Bosh‘s 19 points on 8-10 shooting and Shane Battier‘s four timely threes and be satisfied with our rudimentary analysis. LeBron was the star, Wade came on when it counted and Bosh and Battier were the x-factors. Simple, neat and clean. It’s because there’s a certain fascination with using black and white statistical value to unravel the whole complex. They won because of x, y and z. Someone who’s not supposed to scored a lot, or some defender held some scorer to less than his season’s average. That does have value within the structure of the game, of course. But there’s something to be said for the intangible, too.
We still don’t exactly know who or what Mario Chalmers is. He’s fallen into Miami’s fill-in-the-gap role, and that works just fine. When the Big Three came together, Pat Riley filled out the roster with defined role players: Joel Anthony to play defense, Mike Miller to shoot the ball, Udonis Haslem to rebound, etc. Then there was Chalmers, who could do a little bit of everything. At this point, he’s turned into something of a fourth fiddle, the bridge between the Big Three and Miami’s commoners. But he’s still, most obviously, a tier below in talent, and must fulfill his assigned duties to Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s satisfaction.
But every once in a while there are times when Chalmers sticks his head above water. In Game 7, every so often he convincingly skated through Boston’s defense for easy layups and unceremoniously halted his momentum by crashing into the protective padding beneath the basket. It may not have been pretty, but it was unquestionably effective. James was probably thankful, somewhere in his heart, even if he wanted this to be his game, his moment. Since Boston had subscribed to Miami’s hierarchical blueprint, they left the door open for Chalmers to diabolically spoil their well-conceived defensive plans. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy briefly lauded Chalmers’ aggression, noting it as a more than likely welcome respite for LeBron. But it was quickly forgotten, and the game moved on.
JVG loves highlighting consummate professionals â€“ Keyon Dooling is a particular favorite, someone who’s always ready to play and contribute. But there’s a key distinction in there, because role players aren’t simply expected to try hard â€“ they have to play well, too. Miss a three, turn the ball over, miss a defensive assignment and superstars lose trust, placing the burden, squarely and solely, on their own shoulders.
We’ve seen it in Miami’s revolving door rotation. But Erik Spoelstra is hardly to blame, as he has to balance rhythm and consistency with effective play in highly-specific roles. If you’re a three-point shooter and you’re not making threes, what’s your value? None. So it’s highly pressurized, playing alongside superstars. If you play well, it’s outlying and momentary, waived off with a flick of the wrist. Thanks, that was a nice, albeit unexpected boost. But can you do it again? Eh. We hope so.
Mario Chalmers is the first Miami player to break that mold â€“ not only in his game, but by refusing to bite his tongue. Each time Chalmers didn’t pass or didn’t cut or didn’t make a play to LeBron’s liking in Game 7, James flew into a rage. I imagined LeBron declaring, “I got this, can’t you see?” The typical role player would have slinked away, nodded his head and waited for the verbal beating to end. Chalmers went in a different direction, though, jawing right back at James. We’re in an age where superstars reign supreme â€“ buy into the team, the superstar tyranny, or good luck finding your next contract. So this on-court back and forth, Chalmers’ undermining of the status quo hierarchy, was surprising. But that element that Chalmers brings is invaluable. It’s that x-factor without statistical value. That, at any point, he’ll be the one to unsettle the offensive routine, that he won’t simply defer to his more talented teammates. He upsets Miami’s predictability, that they’ll always rely on their stars to rule the kingdom, and the proletariat will happily remain subservient.
Erik Spoelstra tried to take advantage of this expectation in Game 4, as Sebastian Pruiti so intelligently points out over at Grantland. In the waning moments with LeBron fouled out, it was Mario Chalmers who got the call for the game-winning three. But of course, as Pruiti astutely notes, Wade sabotaged the designed play for his own prejudiced creativity. But what did we do? We congratulated Wade for his creativity to make something out of nothing and blamed Spoelstra for not concocting something better.
This is what makes Chalmers so impressive. Time and time again he’s proven his worth and remains psychologically undeterred in the face of outright rejection. He’s openly reprimanded for his failures and hardly praised for his intangible value â€“ that he’s a threat and defenses must pay attention to him.
Will Chalmers play a big role in the Finals?
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