Posted May 28 2012 10:52AM
MIAMI -- For most of the past two NBA seasons, Mario Chalmers was the guy they yelled at. Now all of a sudden, he's "the key."
Funny, how a different opponent can change a player's standing on his own team.
Because Rajon Rondo is the motor of pretty much everything the Boston Celtics do, certainly offensively and even in tandem defensively with Kevin Garnett, his counterpart for the Miami Heat suddenly has expectations, pressure and, yes, even cachet as a fellow who matters.
"One of the biggest keys of this series," Miami's Dwyane Wade told reporters over the weekend. "No way around it. He has to play well for us. Rondo is an unbelievable penetrator, and he does an unbelievable job of getting his teammates involved. Mario has to give us what he's been giving us, just more consistently."
And so it goes. Wade also referenced the "other" Chalmers, the point guard who often gets chastised for a missed assignment or a wrong-place, wrong-time decision. Wade yells at Chalmers, LeBron James yells at Chalmers, coach Erik Spoelstra yells at Chalmers -- and the superstar-loving fans at AmericanAirlines Arena occasionally pile on, too.
To many in and outside of Miami, Chalmers is one of the luckiest basketball players in the world, one of those little birds who pecks out a living picking bugs off the backs of rhinoceroses. To others, he is the guy with the "Kick Me" sign on his back, always one roster upgrade away from expendable.
To Chalmers, he's happy to be here and appreciative of the criticism, which he sees as constructive regardless of the emotions involved.
"They're just trying to make me better," Chalmers said. "There's no bad stuff or nothing bad coming out of it. We're just trying to help each other, keep this thing going and win a championship.''
Wade said that riding Chalmers -- in a way that would send Rondo into a blue funk if the Celtics similarly messed with their younger, more mercurial playmaker -- will continue out of necessity. "We got to keep it up," the Heat shooting guard said. "I love Mario like a little brother but Mario's the reason why I would never coach.''
A glance at the numbers prompts a chicken-or-egg puzzle regarding Chalmers: After averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds in the regular season -- itself a big step forward from his period-of-adjustment performance in 2010-11 alongside the Big Three -- the fourth-year player from Kansas has nudged those in the 2012 postseason to 11.3 ppg, 3.5 apg and 4.5 rpg. He set a career-high by hitting 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers this season, and had improved slightly there to 16-of-40 (40 percent) in the playoffs.
Maybe it's all the unsolicited wisdom he gets at high volumes during games. Or maybe it's in spite of the yelling.
Pinning the responsibility on Chalmers to stop or at least stymie Rondo is a little unfair. What the Heat do against Kevin Garnett up front looms almost as large; without Chris Bosh (lower abdominal strain) in Game 1 and perhaps for the entire series, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony getting physical with the lanky Garnett might be the best strategy to keep him out of a comfort zone.
And even that is skirting the issue. The real key for Miami, in this, that or any other series, is how Wade and James play as a remodeled Big Two. It seemed to take them most of three games against Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals to adjust to Bosh's absence. But when they did, it was the equivalent of afterburners kicking in. Over Games 4, 5 and 6, Wade scored 99 points and James scored 98.
That would seem to shift the onus on Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, Boston's positional matchups for Wade and James. Can the two aging Celtics keep up, holding their Heat counterparts in check when Miami has the ball and then finding energy reserves to do some damage when it's their turn to score?
Pierce and Allen will get help, both from backups and in double-teams, against the two most formidable Miami threats. Likewise Chalmers vs. Rondo -- Spoelstra won't hesitate to change looks, sending Wade, other backcourt players and even James at the feisty Boston guard.
But if the Heat's star players want Chalmers to respond as if it's all on him ... well, the point guard is willing to go that route. If he didn't realize that his record in games facing Rondo is 7-14 (as the Palm Beach Post pointed out Monday), he should now.
"You don't apply pressure to him," Chalmers said. "He [doesn't] get rattled at all. Rondo's a veteran point guard, somebody who has got a lot of savvy, someone who is always confident, never gets rushed.
"It's going to be a tough matchup for me but I'm always ready for the big moment. Rondo is considered one of the best point guards in the league, so for me to get that kind of status, I've got to defend the best, go against the best."
And no doubt hear about it from the best.
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