Jon Cooper - Last Stop ... Atlanta - April 16, 2010
Mario West is making the end of the game his time.
By Jon Cooper
Mario West knows how to make a lasting impression.
For a lot of opposing teams' twos and threes West is the last thing they see before heading back to the locker room at intermission or game's end. West makes it his job to make that trip back as uncomfortable as possible.
He doesn't need a lot of time on the court, usually getting anywhere from a minute to .3 seconds (enough time to catch and shoot), but it's time when a defensive stand is paramount.
Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox would call on his closer, Billy Wagner.
Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson calls on his closer, Mario West.
Much like Wagner, West has prepared himself for the moment of truth, having gone over all the possibilities in his mind.
"My time on the bench I try to visualize the game. I try to slow the game down in my head and put myself in the position of my teammates out there," he said. "When I get out there it really helps. My teammates and the coaching staff have given me wonderful support. So that makes it easier, too, for when I get out there on the court."
Woodson has become one of West's biggest supporters.
"The thing that I've always liked about Mario West is when he steps on the floor something happens," said Woodson. "Good or bad, something happens but normally something good happens to that kid and for the team. That's why he's on our ball club. He plays extremely hard. You need players to do that. You don't always have to score the ball. If you defend and rebound and hustle, that goes a long way with me."
What's most appreciated is the extra mile West goes whenever he shows up to Philips Arena, be it game day or practice.
"That's something that I really take pride in," he said. "I'm always appreciative and thankful because this is not a given for me to be here. That was obvious when I got cut. I don't take anything for granted. I take a lot of pride in wearing my Hawks uniform and being here with the guys and playing for the organization and the coaching staff here. So whatever role I can play, I enjoy it."
Turning hustle into opportunity has become the trademark of West's basketball career. This is a guy who went from walk-on at Georgia Tech to being named a captain by his senior year.
After going undrafted after graduating (on the Dean's list), West earned a spot with the Hawks, where he played the last two seasons.
This season, he was one of the Hawks' final cuts in training camp, then, after trying his hand at playing professionally in China and playing 11 games with the Maine Red Claws of the NBDL, he found himself back in Atlanta. He signed a 10-day contract on Jan. 22, then a second one on Feb. 2, which meant he was on board for the remainder of the season.
He's made the most of limited opportunities to shine since returning. West had played a total of 109 minutes in 38 games entering season finale against Cleveland. That's 2.9 minutes per game but 48 of those minutes came in four blowouts. That left 61 minutes in 34 games, less than two minutes an appearance. But that time also is misleading, since NBA statistics are recorded in such a manner that once a player steps on the court he's credited with a minute, regardless of actual playing time.
Exact time isn't a factor for West, whose goal is to make every second count.
"I just play with a lot of energy," he said. "I'm not going to take for granted any time I get. I'm trying to help my team gain an advantage whether that's on the defensive end or the offensive end by crashing the boards or generating energy any way I can."
In the finale against Cleveland, Woodson rewarded by West, giving him his only start of the season (the sixth of his career) and playing him 32:32.
Offensively, West was his usual relentless, going coast-to-coast for a score-and-one, converting an ally-oop pass from Marvin Williams, and, in his highlight basket in the third quarter cut from right corner to the basket, took a Mo Evans pass from the foul line, drove the baseline and finished with a fierce one-hand slam.
More typical of West was a key play early in the second quarter, when he knocked the ball away from Cavs' center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, raced with him for the ball, then dove head first to knock the ball into the back court. Cleveland recovered the ball, but did so as the 24-second clock expired.
The hustle brought Woodson, and some of the bench to its feet applauding.
The play was pretty much forgotten, showing up only as one of Cleveland's 15 turnovers for the game, but it was the kind of play that made the Cavs uncomfortable and was a prime example of Mario being Mario.
It's also the kind of play that led Woodson to draw a comparison between West and Darvin Ham, a defensive stalwart who was an important, albeit understated, contributor to the 2004 World Champion Detroit Pistons.
"He was a hustle-type player that Larry [Brown] would throw in and he would do something spectacular," recalled Woodson, breaking into a smile. "Maybe a steal or a dunk, a rebound, stopping somebody. [Mario] is kind of like Darvin Ham."
There is no guarantee how much court time West will see in the Playoffs, when Woodson, like all coaches, shortens his bench, but he'll be ready if called upon to make a play or stop one.
"Anytime I get the call I want to perform and help my team," he said. "You go through training camp and all the off-season workouts to put yourself in position to get in the playoffs and anything can happen in the playoffs."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.