Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Heat needs Super Mario, not this impostor

The game that knocked him lower than he has ever been, lower than he has ever felt, would not let go of Mario Chalmers. So he was up until 5 a.m. Wednesday, watching film of last year’s NBA Finals and this year’s, looking for differences, trying to find who he was, trying to get himself back.

It is so strange for this transformation to be happening to this man.

Chalmers didn’t invent cockiness, but he perfected it. He struts in his sleep. He is a clutch player made for big moments, and if you don’t believe it, just ask him.

That’s who he used to be.

That is who the Heat needs back — now, Thursday night here in Game 4 of a championship series Miami trails 2-1.

The Heat needs its starting point guard, not the imposter in his uniform who has had a Finals more loudly awful than merely quiet. Not the far-from-super Mario who is the team’s most mysteriously missing person at the moment.

On Wednesday, Chalmers appeared for the NBA’s daily media session and began walking to one of the podiums on the court’s four corners — spots reserved for top Heat players other than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who are in the main interview room along with coach Erik Spoelstra.

A league official intercepted Chalmers and quietly told him he would not be at a podium this day, but instead could take a cushioned courtside seat. Perfect. Like the poor guy needed more humbling?

He spoke in a soft, near-whisper.

“It’s actually very tough right now but I got to keep believing,” he said. “This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever been through. I’m expected to be a spark plug, and right now I can’t get it going.”

The difference he saw in himself from last year’s Finals and now?

“Just my energy, really,” he said. “My energy last year was more disruptive [defensively]. Now I’m most disappointed definitely on the offensive end.”

In Tuesday’s loss here, Chalmers was 0-for-5 shooting and scored two points. In the Finals, he is averaging 3.3 points on 25 percent shooting. For the entire postseason, it’s a subpar 6.4 point average, and 12 consecutive games not in double figures. It has been a steady cascade from regular-season steadiness and a 9.8 scoring average.

Game 3 was his nadir (he hopes), with him not as a spark plug but a liability.

“I have to bring more energy,” he whispered. “I just couldn’t get into it. It’s very troubling. It’s frustrating.”

Easy speculation is that Chalmers has his contract on his mind, set to become a free agent this offseason and maybe thinking too much or trying too hard to impress — and doing the opposite. His market value is withering as Miami mulls whether to re-sign him and other potential suitors gauge his game.

“I’m not even thinking about that,” he said.

Miami seems stuck relying on Chalmers to simply bounce back. Options are limited, especially with backup Norris Cole also struggling. The two point guards are a combined 7-for-27 shooting in the Finals, including 2 for 11 on three-pointers. Plus, the removal of Chalmers from the starting lineup would create a domino effect in the rotation that would likely mean more work for an already overburdened LeBron.

So the team plies Chalmers with support and psychology, and hopes.

“You want him to know we still have faith in him, trust in him, and we need him,” Spoelstra said.

Chris Bosh texted Chalmers that he should mute the outside noise and “just play the way you’ve been playing your whole life.”

On Wednesday, Bosh noted, “We don’t need him to be Superman, just need him to be Mario Chalmers, solid defensive player and solid offensive player who gets guys involved. Whatever he’s holding onto, let it go. It’s basketball! We try to take as much pressure off [him] as possible, but he’s got to do it himself.”

Chalmers does not deny the problem is in his head, where frustration compounds itself. One Heat official privately likened it to the issues that bedeviled Pacers center Roy Hibbert earlier in the playoffs.

“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,” Chalmers said. “I don’t know what it is right now, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

Clearly, Miami needs Chalmers to snap out of his funk. James wasn’t talking about Chalmers — but could have been — when he said Wednesday, “You can’t control if a shot goes in, but you can control how you defend. You can control how much energy you bring to the game.”

In other words, the Heat can live with Chalmers not scoring well if he is helping in other ways.

“We’re not going to leave him out on an island,” Wade said of the team’s support. “We’re going to continue to pull him in.”

Of course, Tuesday’s 19-point loss wasn’t all on Chalmers. Miami had 20 turnovers, a dozen of them by James and Wade. And why didn’t Bosh (4 for 4) get more touches? And why was the defense so awful early on? How can a team in its first Finals home game get buried under an avalanche?

“We’re supposed to be the avalanche,” as Bosh put it. “It was a collective funk.”

The desperate reliance on Chalmers to magically be better (because Cole has been just as bad) underlines a broader shortfall with the Heat, and that is depth.

Miami’s thinness has been glaring in these Finals. San Antonio’s bench has outscored Miami’s 100-55. And, apart from Ray Allen, with 36 points in the three games, everybody else on the Heat bench has combined for a meager 19 points in 151 minutes. Allen, Birdman Andersen and Cole are the only reserves consistently getting minutes.

That places too much burden on the Big 3 and on James, especially. It gives the Heat roster a fragility, a diminished margin of error and, many nights, a LeBron-or-bust feel.

Miami has no young star capable of 29 points, like the Spurs got from 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard in Game 3.

San Antonio got a modest combined 40 points from its Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli on Tuesday but still won easily because Leonard and Danny Green combined for 44 on 17-for-21 shooting.

When was the last time two Heat players outside the Big 3 provided that kind of offense in a game? Take as long as you need. Answer: Never.

This is an issue that will need urgent remedy even if Miami rallies to three-peat.

Miami’s roster is top-heavy and unbalanced in a way that San Antonio’s is not.

The Heat has a Bentley, a Maserati and a Mercedes in its garage, but sometimes you also need a reliable van to carry the kids, and maybe a pickup to carry the mulch.

The stars cannot always carry you. Shouldn’t have to, anyway. But they do in Miami.

That is why a two-time defending champion with the best player in the world finds itself trailing in the NBA Finals and in the strange position of desperately willing the sudden emergence of Mario Chalmers.

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