MIAMI — You always remember your first Mario Chalmers moment.
For this reporter, it occurred after I approached the Kansas University product for an interview, in the midst of a rookie season in which he would start all 82 games.
It had occurred to me that Chalmers' role in Miami, as a complementary running mate to Dwyane Wade—capable of handling on occasion but mostly spotting up for shots—was similar in some ways to what a then-Laker had done for well over a decade.
It had not occurred to Chalmers.
So, when I asked him whom he patterned his game after, and someday hoped to be, his response took me a bit by surprise.
"Chris Paul," he said.
I humbly suggested another option: Derek Fisher.
You know, three-time champion at the time...with two more championships to come.
Big shot maker.
Someone Kobe Bryant implicitly trusted at his side.
This was meant as a compliment.
"Derek Fisher?" Chalmers said, eyes squinting, head turning. "Nah."
That, in a nutshell, is Mario Chalmers, who will face Paul and the Clippers on Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Some think his extreme confidence is a little nuts.
Some are driven nuts by his inconsistency.
But there's no question—after all the tough love and public tirades he's endured from the coaching staff and teammates alike—that he's one of the NBA's toughest nuts to crack.
And, when under the brightest lights, he's got big, well, you know...
So, is it nuts to assert that he's actually been the perfect guy for the Heat's point-guard position during the Big Three era, someone who is not scared of the stage, but still seems to know his place?
Nor is it silly to say that, with the way he and Norris Cole have started the 2013-14 season, the Heat are stronger at the spot than they have been since Jason Williams and Gary Payton had a complementary championship season together in 2005-06...or even since the rookie Wade manned it in 2003-04, with Rafer Alston in reserve.
Whereas previously Erik Spoelstra went stretches with neither Chalmers nor Cole on the floor, they are currently combining to average more than 48 minutes (50.4), a consequence of playing some together. Chalmers has struggled to convert layups, but he's made 11-of-20 shots from the behind the arc, and his current assist average (5.2) would be a career high. Cole is averaging career highs in points (8.4), rebounds (3.0) and assists (3.0) while shooting 57.6 percent overall.
Small sample sizes, sure, but still good signs from the Heat's two smallest players.
So what's different for two players who couldn't be more different as people—Chalmers cocky, free-spirited and seemingly indestructible; Cole polite, serious and seemingly incorruptible?
"Yeah, we’re playing very comfortable right now," Chalmers said. "We’re letting the game come to us instead of forcing it. That’s a part of maturity and growth."
Start with Cole, the sub who is two years younger, but has sometimes seemed older.
"He's using his speed to his advantage," LeBron James said. "He's been very patient with it. He picks his spots. His quickness opens up so much not only for him, but for the rest of our guys. When he drives, he’s going to get past his guy. There’s always going to be a second defender. You know that you’re going to have a dump-off pass to a big, or a kick-out for a three. He’s learning to make the right reads."
It helps when his head's up, which was often not the case during his first two seasons, but has been of late.
"Boy, that's 10,000 reps," Spoelstra said. "I can't tell you how many times he watches film on it, but every time we do a 5-on-0 drill, a 3-on-0 drill, he's been drilled Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours style. Banana cut to get open, bang, look up the floor and find your Hall of Famers, make 'em better."
"It's a mental thing," Cole said. "You see it on film, you go over it in practice, and you mentally make a conscious effort to look for the next best pass, the next best play, period."
Spoelstra doesn't want Cole curtailing all of his aggressiveness in the open court.
"So it's a fine balance that he's had to learn," Spoelstra said. "And just the more reps, the more experience, the more games. He's diligent, as we know."
That he is, passing on nights out on the road to prepare, spending the pregame period reviewing his scouting report. Cole, who was a primary scorer at Cleveland State, admitted it's been a challenging adjustment, transforming into more of a facilitator.
"A lot of times it's going to take me breaking the defense down and then kicking, instead of just passing it to them," Cole said.
Cole has broken down in another way this season—loosening up, and showing more personality. While in New York City last week, he appeared on Regis Philbin's show on FOX Sports 1, dressed as Chuck Norris for Halloween.
"It only made sense to be Chuck Norris," Cole said. "That’s probably the only costume I would be willing to dress up as. I normally don’t do costumes. I usually let my hair and let my swag do the talking for itself. But putting on a karate suit, I didn’t have to cover up my hair. So I was all for it. It was pretty cool....Playing on this team, you learn not to be camera-shy as much. Plus, it was fun. Being my third year, I’m trying to enjoy this experience as much as possible."
Even Cole still has some limits.
Consider a recent conversation this reporter had with Chalmers, after the Heat starter had three more steals, which has been his average through five games, putting him among the league leaders.
Chalmers had already told reporters that he wanted to lead the NBA this season.
That, apparently, was no longer sufficient.
"I need you to do me a favor: What's the all-time record for steals in a season," Chalmers requested.
After some searching, this was produced: Alvin Robertson averaged 3.67 in 1985-86.
"I'm going for it," Chalmers said.
Spoelstra, who tends to shake his head at some of Chalmers' statements, didn't take issue with this ambition.
"He's mentioned that to me before," Spoelstra said. " As long as it's coming within the discipline and confines of our system. It's built to be active and to force turnovers. But it can't be mindless or gambling, or just on his own rulebook. And he's been very active, concentrating on getting his hands on deflections, and knowing when he can read passing lanes. He's come a long way in terms of our system, and where he was as an undisciplined steals-defender three years ago."
Cole's come a long way in terms of his own confidence.
Would he ever say he would set a league record in anything?
"I mean, hey, sometimes you got to speak it into existence," Cole said, smiling. "I probably wouldn't say it, but in my mind, it's possible for me to think I could do something like that, too."
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