- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

There was Roger Mason in the waning seconds of the Spurs-Lakers game Wednesday, drawing contact from Derek Fisher and a whistle from the referee as he released the shot and tumbled to the floor.

This was a sweet moment as sweet moments are defined in the course of the NBA’s 82-game schedule.

This also was a possible preview of the Western Conference finals, the well-equipped Lakers vs. the aging but still formidable Spurs. And it was all in Mason’s hands, with the Spurs down by two points after Kobe Bryant delivered a 3-pointer and celebrated as if the issue were settled.

But it wasn’t. The Spurs have three players in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker who know how to finish a game. Wasn’t that Duncan flipping in a nearly impossible shot to put the Spurs up by one point before Bryant’s 3-pointer? Wasn’t that Ginobili looking like his old self again? Wasn’t Parker the quickest player on the floor?

And yet there was Mason taking the pass from Matt Bonner and sensing that Fisher was in an awkward position and that the worst he would get out of the play would be two free throw attempts and a chance to tie the game.

So Mason drew the contact, got the call and made the shot. Tie game. He then made the free throw to put the Spurs up by one. There would be no last-second drama from the Lakers, only a traveling violation.

This was Mason lifting the Spurs in the final seconds yet again, first against the Clippers in November, then against the Suns on Christmas Day and now against the Lakers. This was Mason, whose heart remains in the District, who could have signed with the Spurs a year earlier but elected to stay with the Wizards out of hometown allegiance.

Mason, a Good Counsel High School product, has traveled a long way to become a basketball assassin of the highest order. The NBA did not know whether it wanted him after he left the University of Virginia following his junior season.

He was neither a playmaking ball-handler nor a navel-to-navel defender. He was a shooting guard who hugged the 3-point line and seemingly lacked the quickness to be much more than a utility piece.

As a second-round draft pick of the Bulls in 2002, Mason could not know the odyssey ahead of him, the uncertainty of where he would be going next, of being glued to a bench, of being traded and released before finding a rebirth of sorts in Greece and Israel.

He was four seasons into his professional basketball career - having appeared in a grand total of 43 NBA games - before the Wizards signed him in one of those salary-cap-favorable transactions in 2006.

You know the rest of the story. Injuries produced opportunities, and Mason thrived in an environment in which he was genuinely needed.

If last season was viewed as the high-water mark in Mason’s evolution, he is showing otherwise in San Antonio. He is averaging a career-high 12.3 points and 3.4 rebounds in 30.6 minutes. More important, he has earned the respect of the coaching staff and his teammates.

“He has the confidence to do it, and he has the license to do it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Mason’s game-winning play. “We all trust him.”

When Mason left the Wizards to sign with the Spurs in July, no one in the District at the time envisioned the corrosive effect it would have on the team.

Gilbert Arenas was going to be healthy, after all. And Antonio Daniels would be able to extract another dependable season out of his aging body in limited minutes. And no way would DeShawn Stevenson lose his shot on summer vacation. And Brendan Haywood would improve upon his career season.

How naive. At least Mason is free from the misery of a franchise slogging its way to the lottery and is playing a pivotal role on a championship-contending team.

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