Chalmers is Miami's natural-born winner
MIAMI — It has taken nine years and been a labyrinthine journey, but it looks as if through the missteps, the soul searching and the blitzkrieg of criticism, LeBron James has evolved into someone who is at ease when everything is heaped on his broad shoulders.
That much appeared clear Tuesday night when James, fighting off leg cramps, sank a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 2:51 left to send Miami on its way to a 104-98 victory over Oklahoma City, giving the Heat a 3-1 series lead and leaving James one victory shy of his long-sought championship.
And yet it is not without some irony that James' partner in carrying Miami was Mario Chalmers. While an enormous investment has been required from James to cultivate a certain comfort in these circumstances, Chalmers never has squirmed when the game is in his hands.
One seems to have acquired his late-game gravitas by nature, the other by nurture.
Chalmers, who helped Kansas to a national title with one of the great clutch shots in NCAA tournament history, once again embraced the big moment that so used to overwhelm James.
For much of the series, Chalmers was a cipher — he missed 16 of 18 shots in one stretch. But when the Heat needed him most, with Russell Westbrook scintillating and James on the bench for the final minute with cramps, Chalmers calmly delivered.
He scored 25 points, more than he had in the entire series, and had 12 during the fourth quarter. He sank three 3-pointers, matching his total for the first three games. Most important, with James on the bench, Chalmers drove past Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder's best perimeter defender, and lofted the ball over Serge Ibaka, the NBA's premier shot-blocker, and into the basket with 44.2 seconds left. It provided Miami with a five-point lead. Chalmers then sank two free throws with 13.8 seconds left to seal the victory.
"It's part of your DNA; you're just born with it," Miami guard Dwyane Wade said of Chalmers, noting a tattoo on his shoulder. "What it says on his arm, 'Mr. Clutch,' that clutch gene, you've got to be born with it and he has it."
Wade smiled as he spoke, something most Miami players do when they speak of Chalmers. If they are speaking at him, particularly during a game, it may be a different story. Often they are gnashing their teeth.
If Chalmers can be clutch, he also can confound. In the more mundane moments of a game, Chalmers is prone to miss assignments, miss shots and leave his teammates wondering where his head is. This often leads to shouting matches between Chalmers and his teammates, as it did when James barked at him in Oklahoma City. Chalmers did not hesitate to shout right back.
"It's an attribute that's tough to teach, being able to stay in the moment," Miami forward Shane Battier said. He and Chalmers are trying to become the fifth and sixth active players to win NBA and NCAA titles. "It's a special skill, and Mario has it."
And then Battier smiled.
"It's almost detachment," he continued. "That's what every Buddhist is trying to get to — that's what Mario has, basketball detachment."
Chalmers, as he walked down a corridor in AmericanAirlines Arena late Tuesday night, suggested his upbringing has much to do with this. Chalmers grew up in Alaska, where the weather was not the only thing that hardened him. The only other NBA players ever to come out of the state have been Carlos Boozer and Trajan Langdon.
"Being out there, people don't come out there to see players, so I always had a chip on my shoulder," said Chalmers, who grew up in Anchorage. "I had to prove to everybody else that I could play and that I belonged. I've always been that player that's never been shaken by anything."
There were few on the court Tuesday that might be able to make that claim. Perhaps Derek Fisher, who distinguished himself with the Lakers by delivering clutch shots.
But the two best players on the court were James, who had 26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds and two steals, and Westbrook, who carried Oklahoma City almost through force of will, forcing his way into gaps in the defense and scoring 43 points.
But Westbrook, like James until this season, struggled for the second game in a row to maintain his poise at key moments. He fouled Chalmers with 13.8 seconds left after a jump ball, when only 4.2 seconds remained on the shot clock and Oklahoma City trailed 101-98. Westbrook also squandered any shred of hope the Thunder had when he fumbled the ball away with 8.8 seconds left and Miami up five. The Heat then dribbled out the clock.
There were no such plays for Chalmers.
"Mario has that thing called heart," Wade said. "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. 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.' "
And so Chalmers did, delivering when his teammates needed him and delivering the Heat to the brink of a championship.