Mario Chalmers was a quintessential X-factor for the Miami Heat during the 2013 NBA Finals. He scored 19 in a Game 2 victory that was decided by 19 points. He posted a combined 34 points in the decisive Games 5 and 6. For the series, he made 40.6 percent of his three-pointers.
Fast-forward to these 2014 NBA Finals, and things have changed.
Through three games, the 28-year-old has just 10 points combined. He's made just one of his five three-point attempts.
Chalmers' most productive statistical category so far? Fouls—he has 12 of them.
He also has eight turnovers offset by just nine assists.
Miami doesn't ask much of its point guards. While it's always a plus when they help keep the ball moving, most of the playmaking responsibilities fall to LeBron James and—to a lesser degree—Dwyane Wade. Chalmers and backup point guard Norris Cole are primarily tasked with spacing the floor. When the ball comes to them, their job is to shoot more often than not.
When they're not shooting well, that's a problem.
Chalmers' 25 percent success rate from the field is, accordingly, quite a problem. The origins of his struggles remain unknown even to Chalmers. After Tuesday's Game 3 loss, he confessed that he was "still at the drawing board," per Michael Wallace of ESPN.com. "Everybody else is doing their job, and it's me that's not helping the team right now. And I don't want to be that guy. I don't know what it is right now, but I have to figure it out."
And he has to do so in short order. Chalmers is an instrumental component of Miami's offense, a difference-maker who can elevate that offense against a San Antonio team that scores in bunches.
Miami doesn't need Chalmers to take over games. It certainly has no interest in seeing him try to do too much. There is, however, a need for some consistency—especially some reliability from beyond the arc.
Chalmers' lack of rhythm has almost certainly deterred him from being more aggressive. The Spurs still have to respect his ability to shoot the ball, but they're far more worried with the other four guys on the floor at any given time. That's not particularly healthy for Miami's floor spacing. For it to be at its best, everyone has to be firing on all cylinders.
So that's the problem in a nutshell, but what's the solution?
In short, shooters have to keep shooting.
The Heat can't afford to abandon Chalmers, and they know it.
Wade: "Mario is a big piece of what we do. And we're missing that piece right now.... We're not going to leave him out on an island."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) June 11, 2014
It's clear that the Heat want to help Chalmers, and they know they need him, but one told me, "He needs to meet us halfway."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) June 11, 2014
Cole isn't as good of a shooter in general, and he really hasn't been any better than Chalmers in this series. Wallace broke down the comparison between Chalmers and Cole on the one hand and their Spurs counterparts on the other:
Through three games in the series, Parker and Mills have combined to shoot 49.1 percent from the field overall and 50 percent from 3-point range while accounting for 25 points, 7.6 assists and two steals a night. By comparison, Chalmers and Cole are shooting a combined 7-for-27 overall, including 2-of-11 from beyond the arc while contributing just 6.6 points, 5.3 assists and 4.7 turnovers a game.
Getting more out of Cole would be great, but we know what Chalmers is capable of. We saw it a season ago, and there's still a chance we could see it again before it's too late.
More often that not, there's a psychological dimension to these kinds of hang-ups. Chalmers clearly didn't forget how to play basketball. Maybe he senses pressure to do what he did this time a year ago. Maybe he's distracted by his impending free agency, perhaps wondering whether his days in Miami are numbered. The guesses could go on and on.
Another sign this is a head issue is that Chalmers' decision-making appears to be plagued by the worst kind of second-guessing. CBS Sports' Matt Moore explained:
The Heat are now three games into the Finals. They're running out of time to get Chalmers back on track, and Norris Cole isn't exactly a salve for the burns. Chalmers' primary issue in Game 3 was poor decisions and luck. Open corner 3s wouldn't fall. When he needed to pass, he would shoot. When he needed to shoot, he would pass. And he would constantly manage to find his man, but guess wrong on whether to close or play the drive.
We don't have to speculate about the results, though. They speak for themselves, to the extent that Chalmers is entirely aware of what's happening:
Mario Chalmers: "This is one of the toughest challenges I've ever been through."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) June 11, 2014
That probably can't help. If he was pressing before, this could get even worse before all is said and done.
Unfortunately, that's a risk the Heat have to take. Miami has to leave Chalmers on the floor for fairly significant stretches. If for no other reason, his ability to defend the backcourt is crucial. The Spurs have two very quick guards in Tony Parker and Patty Mills. Though James can check Parker for much of the game, that's a taxing task. Chalmers will have to do his part, too.
Nor can Miami live without the point guard's passing. Chalmers averaged 4.9 assists per game during the regular season. Even if James is the primary distributor on this team, he's never been the only one.
And most importantly, Miami needs that shooting. Chalmers converted on 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts this season, only slightly off his scorching mark from last season's Finals. Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have admirably taken on most of the long-range duties in this series, but it clearly hasn't been quite enough.
Not against San Antonio's high-octane offense.
Miami knows it isn't going to get 19- and 20-point performances from Chalmers every night. By now we should all know his production in those 2013 Finals was something of an anomaly. On the season, he averaged just 9.8 points. He's never averaged more than 10 points per contest, a figure he only matched when he was a rookie in 2008-09.
Miami doesn't need another star. It just needs some steadiness.