He was wide awake. Every time he tried to close his eyes, the errors and mistakes would replay in his head. It was 5 a.m. on Wednesday and rather than sleeping off the Miami HEAT’s Game 3 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Mario Chalmers was up watching film, trying to pinpoint what he’s been doing wrong.
“I am a little bit [of a perfectionist],” Chalmers told Basketball Insiders. “I dwell on things too long and I just need to let them go.”
Chalmers is struggling mightily right now, averaging just 3.3 points, three assists, four fouls and three turnovers through the first three games of the 2014 NBA Finals. He’s shooting just 25 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range. In the last 30 years, Chalmers is the only Finals starter who has totaled 10 or fewer points and shot 25 percent or worse from the field after playing 50 or more minutes, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
While his disappearance in the Finals has led to widespread criticism, his poor play actually started earlier in the postseason. Chalmers has now scored in single-digits in 12 consecutive games, and his highest scoring game of the playoffs was a mediocre 12-point outing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets.
Chalmers doesn’t seem like himself, on or off the court. The 28-year-old point guard, who has made a name for himself with his swagger and clutch plays, is lacking confidence and questioning himself. After Game 3, a dejected Chalmers stood in front of his locker, shaking his head and taking the blame for the loss.
“Everybody else is doing their job, and it’s me that’s not helping the team right now,” Chalmers said. “I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t know what it is right now, but I have to figure it out.”
Chalmers’ teammates have noticed his change of attitude, and they’re trying to build up his confidence again. Chris Bosh has been sitting down with Chalmers in recent days and trying to get him to remove all of the negative words from his vocabulary. LeBron James has been laying off the point guard, who he normally criticizes endlessly (to the amusement of people on social media). The HEAT are trying to help Chalmers get out of this rut, but they aren’t sure what’s going on with their floor general.
Chalmers hasn’t offered an explanation for his struggles. He has said that he’s going “through one of the toughest challenges” of his life, but he hasn’t elaborated on that. His teammates aren’t sure what’s going on either.
“Whatever he’s holding on to, just let it go; it’s basketball,” Bosh said. “We have things going on – pressure and things off the court – but when you get on the court, it’s about nothing else but the game. We try to take as much pressure off of Rio as possible, but he has to do it himself.”
“We’re going to continue to give him confidence,” Dwyane Wade said. “Mario is a big piece of what we do and we’re missing that piece right now, for whatever the reason is. But as a team, we’re going to continue to give him confidence so when he has his shot, shoot it, take it. Defensively, Mario is someone who we depend on to cause havoc and we need him to do that. He’s our guy. He’s our point guard. Obviously, we’ve all been to the point where we’ve struggled before and we’re not going to leave him out on the island at all. We’re going to continue to pull him in. It just takes one. It takes one performance, it takes one shot and things can turn around. As long as he stays confident in himself, he can bounce back from it.”
“You want him to know we still have faith in him, trust in him and we need him,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We have trust in Rio. I don’t want him to shoulder the full responsibility. This is a team game. We had enough breakdowns on both sides of the ball where defensively we weren’t defending five men the way we were capable of, and offensively we weren’t helping each other get in rhythm and get the type of shots that our guys need to get to get going. So we have trust in Rio, and we want him to be confident, want him to be aggressive. He’s a big part of what we do.”
“He’s been our starting point guard in our back‑to‑back championship runs and he played a key role in it, and he can’t lose confidence in himself,” James said. “At the end of the day, you can give a guy as much confidence as you want, but when a guy loses confidence in himself, it can be all downhill, and that’s one thing he can’t do. He can’t lose confidence in himself or his abilities. … Obviously, it’s weighing on him. It’s in his head right now, I think. He hasn’t said much. His confidence may be a little shaken, I’m not quite sure, 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. Obviously, I’ve been [laying off 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. But he can’t lose confidence in himself. That is the number one thing, and as teammates, we’ll make sure we keep him up.”
As James pointed out, these struggles are out of character for Chalmers, who has stepped up in key moments throughout his basketball career. In college, he became a household name after leading Kansas to the 2008 national championship and hitting a clutch three to force overtime in the title game. He has thrived on the NBA’s biggest stage, willing Miami to victory in a number of Finals games. He scored 25 points in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, taking over the game late to score 12 of his points in the fourth quarter. Last year, Chalmers was a key cog in the Finals, leading Miami in scoring with 19 points in a Game 2 victory over the Spurs, and then coming up big with 20 points in the HEAT’s thrilling Game 6 win that kept their title hopes alive. Chalmers isn’t someone who typically disappears in crucial moments, and certainly not for this long of a stretch.
There has been some speculation that Chalmers’ contract situation could be affecting his play, as he will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Chalmers says that isn’t the case, and his teammates hope that’s the truth.
“No, I’m not thinking about that at all,” Chalmers said about his upcoming free agency. “When the summer comes, whatever happens, happens.”
“It can’t be [on his mind],” Bosh said of Chalmers’ free agency. “We all have contract situations. People ask me about my contract situation every other day, but that doesn’t mean anything. If I don’t produce on the court, there won’t be a contract. So you just have to focus on ball. You move past that [contract talk]. Maybe it’s because I have experience with that. I can’t say that I’ve handled everything perfectly, but ever since coming here I’ve learned to just focus on the game, pay attention to detail and everything else will take care of itself. You can’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow when you’re missing right now.”
“I mean, I would hope [his contract situation isn’t affecting his play], but I’m not Mario Chalmers and I’m not sure what goes through his mind,” James said. “I mean, this is the NBA Finals, but also it is his livelihood that he’s playing for as well, with him being a free agent this summer. So I’m not quite sure. All I can do as a leader of this team is try to maintain and let him know what the job is at hand. I understand that he’s a point guard on a championship team and we need him. We do. 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 and just be out there and be reliable.”
Chalmers said some specific adjustments he wants to make heading into Game 4 is “being more patient on pick-and-rolls, moving the ball better, cutting more and being more active on both ends.”
While Chalmers’ struggles have certainly made things tougher on the HEAT through three games, his teammates are confident that it’s only a matter of time until he bounces back and plays at the level they’re accustomed to seeing from him.
“He’s struggling right now, but he’ll come through,” Norris Cole said. “He always does. We’re confident in him. I’m always there ready to play. I’m always encouraging him, so he’s struggling, but he’ll have a breakthrough. I’m confident that he’ll come through for us like he always does.”
“We don’t need him to be Superman, we just need him to be Mario Chalmers – a solid defensive player, a solid offensive player who doesn’t force anything and gets guys involved,” Bosh said. “[We just need] our point guard.”