MIAMI – The greatest game of Mario Chalmers' pro career was a shock to most as he scored five of his 25 points in the final 44.6 seconds of the Miami Heat's 104-98 triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder, a win that has the Heat one victory away from the NBA championship. But one Chalmers fan, watching Game 4 at the Saints Pub & Patio in Lawrence, Kan., about a 1,500 mile drive from Miami, was not taken aback. He had seen it all before.
"I'm not surprised at all," Kansas University coach Bill Self told Yahoo! Sports. "This guy loves the big moments."
When LeBron James succumbed to leg cramps in the fourth quarter, the Heat were desperate for someone to step up alongside Dwyane Wade. Chalmers answered the call, scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter, 19 total in the second half. His second-half heroics ended a miserable stretch that started in Game 2 of these Finals. His struggles helped contribute to Miami's sluggish start, when it fell behind 33-19 in the first quarter.
"With LeBron leaving, I had to step up and be a big part of the team," Chalmers said.
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Chalmers outshined the five All-Stars on the floor in the fourth quarter. He scored all the points in a 7-2 run to give Miami an 87-81 lead with 8:14 left. Later, with Miami up 99-96 and James out, Chalmers made a shifty game-changing layup over the Thunder's Serge Ibaka with 44.6 seconds left.
"I just tried to get away from his arm. Ibaka is one of the great shot-blockers," Chalmers said.
Chalmers also made three of his four free throws in the final 13.8 seconds to seal the victory. While this night was the biggest of his NBA career, he maintained focus on the ultimate prize.
"It doesn't mean anything until we finish this on Thursday," Chalmers said. "It's just one game. I had one big game."
Chalmers has had to prove himself for years. While the Anchorage native was a three-time high school player of the year in Alaska, he didn't get much respect because the Land of the Midnight Sun isn't regarded as a hoops hotbed. Chalmers, however, went on to have a memorable college career at Kansas that neither teammates James, Wade or Chris Bosh can boast. Chalmers was the 2008 NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player after leading the Jayhawks to their first national title in 20 years. His 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation put NCAA title game in overtime against Derrick Rose and the University of Memphis before Kansas pulled away.
The respect didn't carry over on draft night. While Rose was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls, Chalmers was one of the evening's sad stories as he was selected with the 34th overall pick in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves. His draft rights were dealt to the Heat for two second-round picks and cash.
"He's had a chip on his shoulder the whole time," Self said. "He should've been drafted higher. He could've been the darling of college basketball had he returned for his senior year. But what happened drove Mario."
Said Wade: "When he got drafted here we knew he was a big-game player."
Chalmers went from draft disappointment to Miami starting point guard, playing in all 82 games as a rookie. But the next three seasons, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder never improved on the 10 points and 4.9 assists he averaged his first season. The arrival of James and Bosh in 2010 took the ball out of his hands.
Wade understands Chalmers' frustration in his role.
"A lot of times Mario doesn't bring the ball up, and he's the point guard," Wade said. "And then there's other times we depend on him to do so much, and we want him to make plays for us. I'm sure it's confusing at times. He's out of rhythm a lot."
The Heat signed veteran guard Mike Bibby to try to beat out Chalmers last season. Chalmers kept his starting position. There was wide media speculation at the beginning of this season that rookie Norris Cole could beat out Chalmers early this season. Chalmers never lost his position.
Through it all, no Heat player has endured more yelling from James, Wade and Bosh than Chalmers. When weak spots in the Heat's roster are contemplated, Chalmers is often mentioned.
"I never let it get to me," Chalmers said. "I keep going. I keep fighting. I keep pushing."
Said Self: "Drafting Cole motivated him. That added fuel to the fire."
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Chalmers didn't help his cause in the Finals before Tuesday as he combined for five points on 2-of-15 shooting from the field and four assists in Games 2 and 3. He had 17 points total in the first three Finals games. Looking for a much-needed mental boost before Game 4, he turned to Wade.
"I expressed some of my frustrations," Chalmers said. "He just told me to keep working and that everybody is on edge right now. The best thing is to move and shake it off."
Winning state titles with Bartlett High School in Anchorage and one national title with Kansas didn't give Chalmers respect. Self is confident that an NBA crown as the starting point guard of the Heat will.
"Mario looks like a sweet and innocent guy," Self said. "But I know from being around him that he's an assassin. He likes the pressure. He handles the heat as good as anyone."
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