Mario Chalmers had just completed yet another strong performance in this postseason.
As he was about to hop on the cart that taxis players from the locker room to interview podium following Wednesday’s victory, he couldn’t help but crack a joke to the driver.
“You need to put some spinners (rims) on this,” Chalmers said. “Hook it up.”
This is Chalmers, the brash, overconfident jokester who has evolved from liability to legitimate third-scoring threat for the Miami Heat. With Chris Bosh sidelined the past seven games, it has been Chalmers filling the scoring void with 3-point shooting and drives to the baskets.
Suddenly, his play is starting to overshadow his sometimes testy relationship with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Chalmers is averaging 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the playoffs entering Friday’s Game 3 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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His much-publicized, on-court screaming matches with James and Wade are now secondary.
“It’s not anything new to those guys,” swingman James Jones said. “I think it makes for good TV. I think people make a bigger deal than it actually is. It’s really just those guys talking loudly. That’s their language and we understand that.”
Chalmers has been linked with Wade and James since becoming teammates. He referred to Wade as his mentor when he arrived in the league in 2008. He and James instantly formed a bond last year because they share similar candid personalties.
Last season Wade and James often spent practices roasting Chalmers about his unexpected appearance on the NBA All-Star ballot, drawing laughs among teammates. James still mocks Chalmers during interviews, questioning why the media would want to talk to him.
Moments later, James is waiting for Chalmers so they can grab post-practice lunch. It is that comfort that allows them to go from heated exchanges on the court to high-fives in one 24-second possession.
“It’s never personal,” Chalmers said. “We all want each other to be successful. If a person is slacking, you’ve got to let them know.”
It wasn’t always easy for Chalmers. Teammates still consider him “stubborn” and perhaps too confident. He’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, and refuses to back down when called out by the superstars. The constant challenging has been somewhat humbling while also helping Chalmers develop into a solid point guard.
“Every one sees his talent and we’re trying to get the best out of him,” forward Shane Battier said. “He gets in trouble when his emotions boil over. Give me that over a guy who you have to get the paddle boards and start his heart. He’s got a ton of heart.”
It wasn’t until he learned to better control his emotions when Chalmers began improving. The guy who made perhaps the most famous shot in Kansas University basketball history had to accept he was playing alongside two of the world’s best players.
He received the best advice from his counterpart in this series. Chalmers had several conversations with Celtics guard Rajon Rondo during his first season with James and Wade. Rondo went through a similar transition his second year in the league, going from college standout to teaming with future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Rondo’s message simple.
“Just never back down,” Chalmers said. “You’re here for a reason. You got the ball in your hands. If they don’t respect you, nobody is going to respect you.”
After scoring 22 points in Game 2, he’s no doubt earned that respect. Chalmers is averaging 15.5 points in this series when the Heat need scoring the most. It is his most productive postseason stint since last year’s NBA Finals.
He even got a pat on the back from James in the locker room after Wednesday’s victory.
“He kept us afloat by his play,” James said. “When D-Wade didn’t have it going, Rio made big shots, especially in the second quarter, in the third quarter as well. He stepped up, made some big shots and gave us a lift. He gave us a third punch that we needed in this game. So he played a great game.”