MIAMI -- Usually, one is watching the other.
Sunday was different, though. Erik Spoelstra subbed Mario Chalmers in for the final stretch, as the Miami Heat coach often does. But he chose to have Chalmers replace Ray Allen rather than Norris Cole.
When the Charlotte Bobcats went bigger a little over a minute later, Spoelstra left Cole and Chalmers on the court. So they were out there together when Bobcats center Al Jefferson missed a tip, the ball hit a couple of hands and the carom came out to the perimeter. Miami's two shortest players were both in the area.
"I was going for the rebound; he was going for the rebound," Cole said of Chalmers. "I saw he got it, so I tried to sprint and get out of the way. Poor Kemba (Walker) ran in front of me. There was no other way of getting around him but running over him."
Or, as Chalmers put it, "He cleared it out for the running back."
Chalmers streaked down the court and soared for his first slam of the season to give the Heat a four-point lead with 28.5 seconds left and a 99-98 victory.
"That was a good one," Cole said. "Everyone on the team can dunk. You gotta conserve it, the momentum was cracking, so it was time. Most times, the guards, you take two points. It takes us a little more energy to be dunking; we ain’t skyscrapers."
The sequence was notable not as much for Chalmers' elevation ("Just a little something, but I saved a little," he quipped. "I don't want to show too much now."), but for their seamless collaboration. It was the eighth time in 17 games that the duo had played together, after doing so just 17 times last season.
"We’ll have to take a look at it some more, and look at those minutes," Spoelstra said. "But that group certainly built a spark. For whatever reason, the five guys that were in there, the energy changed. They were small at the time, so we were able to go with it, make the plays, turn the tempo until they got the timeout. Then they made a substitution, we stayed with it and it continued to work."
After the game, Cole spoke of being "pretty comfortable with it," since both of them are capable of playing on and off the ball, "and it doesn't matter which spot we're at."
"I think that might become our secret weapon, just a smaller, quicker lineup," Chalmers added. "Just open the court, just try to let our defense take over. It made the game a lot easier for the rest of them, CB, D-Wade and LeBron, they were able to get to open spots and get open looks. And once they get open looks, it’s curtains."
So is the curtain opening on something new for the Heat?
If so, the Chalmers-Cole show may have a short run.
That's because Chalmers is a free agent after this season and likely will seek more than the $4 million annually that he's made each of the past three seasons. He can make a case that he's earned it. But, in this sense, the emergence of Cole—who is guaranteed $2.15 million next season—may complicate matters for him, especially with the Heat facing luxury tax concerns.
Chalmers, now in his sixth season, is posting career highs in three-point percentage (.418) and assists (5.0), with a strong steals average (1.8 per game) and a solid turnover rate (2.0 per game). He's shown the ability to make incremental improvements while connecting on critical shots.
But Cole has clearly closed the gap, enough to call them equals. His improvement from his first season to his third has been staggering, though it shouldn't be surprising if you consider that so many teammates marvel about how conscientious he is. (For what it's worth, Michael Beasley called him the "most professional player I've ever played with.")
Cole keeps a card in his locker in which he posts all his goals. They include "50-40-90" (percentages from the field, three-point range and the line), "2-1" (for assist-to-turnover ratio), "5 boards" and "2 steals." He's also made it a priority to improve his mid-range game, consistency and decision-making.
So far this season, he's a bit short in terms of field-goal percentage and free-throw percentages, and his low minute total (24.0 per game) has helped limit him to 3.3 rebounds, even as his per-minute rate is rising. But he is at 45.5 percent from three-point range after 27.6 and 35.7 the past two seasons.
"I knew that there was going to be an adjustment, just from the distance," Cole said. "But me, throughout my career, I always find a way to try to make myself a complete player and get better. Shooting is an inconsistent part for every basketball player. I wanted to become as consistent as I could, so that was a big thing to work on, especially with our spacing."
He is 2.45-to-1 in terms of assist-to-turnover.
He checks the card "every day, just to make sure I'm on track."
He is, and there's another number that speaks to his progression: plus-minus.
Sometimes, that statistic can mislead, especially in small sample sizes. But sometimes, it confirm what you think you're seeing on the court.
If you think the Heat are playing better with Cole out there—as compared to the past two seasons—you're correct.
Consider that last season, Cole was plus-nine in his 80 appearances, or 0.1 per game, by far the worst among rotation players. There was no greater disparity between Heat starter and backup than between Chalmers (plus-567 and plus-7.4-per-game, both third on team) and Cole.
And that was actually progress compared to how the Heat played with Cole in 2011-12, when he was a minus-58 in 65 appearances.
As he's gone from liability to asset, he's firmly worked his way into Miami's future.
Has Chalmers, if his price gets higher?
We'll see. For now, expect to see more of them together.
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