By Dylan Barmmer
One is in his sixth NBA season, including his fourth as the full-time starting point guard for the HEAT.
The other just kicked off his third professional season, and has served as the second-team point guard for back-to-back NBA Championship HEAT teams.
The former is an expert at the art of the steal, a consistently lethal long-range shooter and a player long renowned for his performance in the clutch.
The latter is a tenacious man-to-man defender, an up-tempo and aggressive all-around player and an increasingly accomplished shooter in his own right.
Taken apart, both Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole possess plenty of talents that give opponents fits.
And when combined, the HEAT's point guard duo packs a 1-2 punch that often proves to be downright devastating.
The tandem was absolutely vital to the sensational success of last season's record-setting HEAT team. Each man played a pivotal role as the HEAT posted an NBA-best and franchise-record 66-16 regular-season record that included a remarkable 27-game winning streak, then capped a pulse-quickening playoff run with a victory over the veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs in an unforgettable 2013 NBA Finals that went a full 7 games.
A few weeks into the third season of the Chalmers-Cole pairing, things are looking even better for the HEAT's point guard pair. Each player appears sleeker and quicker than a year ago, and both men are performing and producing at a high level.
Through the first 8 games of the 2013-14 season, Chalmers and Cole rank sixth and seventh, respectively, among HEAT players in scoring, with each man averaging above his career scoring average. Both players are also averaging just a fraction under 3 rebounds and at least 3 assists per game, with Chalmers' 5.3-assist-per-game average ranking behind only reigning NBA MVP LeBron James on the HEAT. Both Chalmers and Cole were also shooting at a 42-percent or better clip from behind the 3-point arc, with Chalmers drilling a team-high 15 of his first 26 attempts for a blistering 57.7-percent average – fourth best in the entire NBA. Chalmers also leads the HEAT in steals – and ranks sixth in the entire NBA – averaging a robust 2.25 steals per game.
Chalmers' sweet shooting from long-distance is nothing new, of course. The confident 27-year-old veteran has drilled 100 or more 3-point field goals in all three of his seasons as the HEAT's starting point guard, including each of the past two seasons. Last season, Chalmers buried a career-high 123 3-pointers, connecting at a 40.9-percent clip that was also a career best – and ranked fourth on the sharp-shooting HEAT, who set a franchise record with 717 hits from long-range. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Chalmers also averaged 8.6 points, 3.5 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals – all in just 26.9 minutes per game. The steals and assists averages ranked third and the scoring average was good for fifth-best on the HEAT.
Chalmers continued his strong all-around play in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, averaging 9.4 points, 3.1 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 0.9 steals while shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from behind the 3-point arc as the HEAT completed a challenging, thrilling and successful NBA Title defense during a thrilling 23-game run.
Chalmers once again came up big when the HEAT needed him most, scoring 19 points in a 103-84 HEAT win over the Spurs in Game 2 of the 2013 NBA Finals and draining a 30-foot, buzzer-beating, bank 3-pointer that put the HEAT up 72-71 going into the fourth quarter of a tight Game 7. Chalmers would finish that game with 14 points, 2 assists and 2 steals, and the HEAT would post a thrilling 95-88 win that capped a comeback from a 3-2 series deficit and a second consecutive NBA Championship. He was also instrumental in a legendary 103-100 overtime win in Game 6, pouring in 20 points, grabbing 4 rebounds and dishing 2 assists while logging a playoff-career-high 43 minutes on the court. Chalmers knocked down 7-of-11 shots in that game, including a near-perfect 4-of-5 from long-range.
With the HEAT facing do-or-die scenarios against a deep, experienced and hungry Spurs squad in the last 2 Finals games, Chalmers opted to "do"...and then did even more, racking up 34 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in back-to-back big-time performances. HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra trusted Chalmers with 83 out of a possible 101 minutes of court time over the final 2 games of the HEAT's storybook season, and he responded by outscoring his point guard counterpoint and perennial All-Star Tony Parker 34 to 29. Chalmers' aggressive defense helped hold the normally prolific Parker to those 29 points on just 9-of-35 shooting from the field (a mere 25.7 percent), and he drained an efficient 13-of-26 shots himself, including 5-of-12 from behind the 3-point arc.
The HEAT have now won NBA Titles in two of the three seasons where Chalmers served as the starter at point guard. Along with teammate Shane Battier and a handful of other men in basketball history, the former Kansas star is also a proud member a super-select club of players who have won championships at both the NCAA and NBA levels.
While Chalmers was providing his customary clutch shooting and often disruptive defensive play, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Cole continued to evolve into a versatile, all-around point guard that any NBA team would be proud to feature as its starter, yet alone backup.
Cole, who turned 25 just before the start of his third NBA season, improved his production and performance in just about every category across the board, raising his averages in assists (2.1), rebounds (1.6), steals (0.7) and minutes per game (19.9), and improving his overall field goal shooting from 39.3 percent to 42.1 percent and his 3-point field goal shooting from 27.6 percent to 35.7 percent. Cole also averaged 5.6 points per game, good enough for seventh on the entire HEAT roster and second to Battier among reserves, and performed incredibly well down the season's stretch, averaging 10.3 points, 3.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 46.8 percent from the field – including a blistering 47.6 percent from long range – in nine games in April.
The former Cleveland State star and Horizon League Player of the Year even started four games in his second NBA season, averaging 13.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 43.5 percent from the field. In a thrilling 96-95 HEAT win at Cleveland on April 15, Cole just missed a triple-double, scoring a season-high 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing 9 assists and making a game-saving block-and-steal on Cavaliers star point guard Kyrie Irving in the closing seconds.
In the playoffs, Cole took his game to a whole other level, especially on offense. Relegated to a minor role that saw him average 1.8 points, 0.6 assists, 0.5 rebounds and 0.4 steals in just 8.9 minutes a game during his first professional postseason, Cole boosted his averages to 6.1 points, 2.0 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 0.7 steals in just a shade under 20 minutes per game as the HEAT survived a grueling playoff gauntlet to secure a second consecutive Championship. He connected on 48 percent of his shot attempts during his second playoff run, including a sizzling 53.1 percent (17-of-32) from 3-point range.
Cole appeared in all but 2 of the HEAT's 23 postseason games, and was especially impactful in the HEAT's Eastern Conference Semifinals series win over the gritty Chicago Bulls, scoring 7 or more points in 4 of the series' 5 games, including a playoff-career-high 18 points in back-to-back HEAT wins in Games 2 and 3. Cole hit an astounding 20-of-29 shots from the field in that series, including 9-of-11 from long-range, and averaged 11.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
This season, as the HEAT work to join an uber-elite collection of teams who have won three consecutive NBA Championships, the team's point guard duo has been arguably even more dynamic.
Chalmers opened the season in scorer mode, racking up 12 or more points in each of the HEAT's first 3 games, then moved into more of a distributor role, dishing out at least 7 assists in back-to-back HEAT wins. Through those first 5 games, Chalmers' lightning-quick hands were as active as ever, as he snared at least 2 steals in each game – including 5 in the season opener – and was averaging a team-high 3.3 steals, second in the entire NBA to Ricky Rubio's 4.0-steal average. Chalmers' 3-point shooting was equally impressive, as he drained 11-of-20 long-range shots, or an eye-popping 55 percent.
Chalmers enjoyed his finest all-around game of the young season in the HEAT's eighth game, scoring 15 points, handing out 7 assists, grabbing 4 rebounds and snaring 2 steals in a 118-95 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 12. Chalmers was absolutely brilliant in the first quarter of that game, racking up 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals to lead the HEAT to a 32-23 edge after the opening quarter.
Cole also opened this season with a strong scoring flourish, netting 9 or more points off the bench in 3 of the HEAT's first 4 games, and hitting a remarkable 16-of-26 shots – including 4-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc – during that 4-game flourish. Cole scored 11 points, pulled down 7 rebounds, dished 3 assists and snared 1 steal in 21 electric minutes of the HEAT's season-opening 107-95 win over the Chicago Bulls, continuing right where he left off against the Bulls last postseason. Cole followed that brilliant debut with a second consecutive game with at least 10 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists, and logged a 9-point, 2-assist, 2-steal outing in a 103-93 HEAT win at Washington two games later.
Perhaps the finest example of Chalmers and Cole teaming up to frustrate an opponent on defense came in a 102-97 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 7. The dynamic duo combined to limit Clippers point guard Chris Paul to just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting in that game – more than 10 points below Paul's per-game scoring average – and pressured the perennial All-Star into 5 turnovers.
With Chalmers and Cole rotating running the point, the HEAT have opened the season averaging 106.8 points through their first 8 games, racking up at least 100 points in each of those games. That 106.8 points-per-game average ranks behind only the Clippers' 109.9 points-per-game pace in the 30-team NBA, and is tops in the Eastern Conference, where points always seem to come at more of a premium. The HEAT are also leading the entire NBA in field goal percentage (52.5 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (44.5 percent) and assists per game (28.1).
No matter where the driven HEAT go this season, one thing is for sure:
They can count on each of the men in charge of steering the offense to guide them to success. Especially when the road starts to get a bit bumpy.