He has gone from end-of-the-bench rookie to one of the most talked about players left in the NBA playoffs. He has become a not-so-secret weapon that could help launch the Houston Rockets to their first league championship.

While much of the spotlight in Houston is still focused on the league's Most Valuable Player, Hakeem Olajuwon, a bald-headed, big-hearted guard from Baltimore has swiped at least a part of it. To some, Sam Cassell has been a surprise, if not a revelation.

But it hasn't shocked his teammates and coaches, who have sensed since training camp that Cassell was capable of doing what he did to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals or to the Utah Jazz in three startling minutes Monday night in Game 1 of the conference finals.

"I don't think of Sam as a rookie," Olajuwon said after Cassell scored 22 points in 29 minutes, including nine in the fourth quarter, to go with seven assists in the series-clinching victory over the Suns. "He is just a guy out there having fun. His game is so different than most players. He plays like he's on the playground. Even though he's a rookie, he has a lot of confidence in himself."

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said: "Sam is fearless, courageous, creative."

Cassell's attitude is apparently rubbing off on the Rockets, a team that in recent years gained a reputation for being guard-awful and gun-shy in the playoffs. Houston has a chance to go up 2-0 on the Jazz when they meet tonight at The Summit.

"I think that game [against the Suns] helped me a lot," Cassell said Monday by telephone from his home in Houston.

"I think it showed that I have the ability to compete at this level. I knew I could do it. The only thing I needed was the opportunity to showcase my ability."

Cassell showed off his offensive explosiveness a few hours later against the Jazz and All-Star, Dream Team guard John Stockton. Coming off the bench to start the second quarter, Cassell made four straight shots and scored nine straight points during an 11-0 run that helped the Rockets break open a close game.

"As long as I get [to] play my 20 to 25 minutes a game, I can do a lot to help this team," said Cassell, who finished with nine points and a team-high seven assists in 18 minutes of a 100-88 victory. "But I'll do whatever the coaching staff wants."

Early this season, the only talent Cassell got a chance to display was cheerleading from the bench. But after barely playing before the All-Star break, Cassell's minutes gradually increased during the past two months. He finished the regular season averaging 6.7 points and 2.9 assists in a little more than 17 minutes a game.

Cassell's productivity has picked up even more in the playoffs. In his first 11 playoff games, Cassell has averaged a shade less than 10 points in a little less than 22 minutes, while contributing 5.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds. He has shot only 41.8 percent, but has made nine of 24 three-point attempts.

About the only rookie mistake he has made was losing his most admirable trait -- his very obvious cool -- and taking a punch at Portland's Jerome Kersey during Houston's opening-round victory.

It cost Cassell a game's suspension and a $2,500 fine, and it probably cost the Rockets the first game of the Phoenix series.

"It was a mistake, and I learned from it," Cassell said.

"When I came back, I wanted to make up for it."

He certainly has. It was Cassell's three-pointer in the final minutes of Saturday's victory that realistically ended the Suns' comeback, their season and possibly the career of Charles Barkley. Phoenix coach Paul Westphal described it as "a dagger in our hearts."

Cassell's recent play has all but erased doubts that accompanied him to the NBA. There was a question whether Cassell, who played mostly shooting guard alongside Charlie Ward at Florida State, could handle point guard responsibilities as well. Some scouts considered him fearless, others reckless.

"Jerry Reynolds [Sacramento Kings general manager] said that Sam would be nothing more than a CBA guard," Len Elmore, Cassell's agent, said yesterday.

Those doubts, which were shared by some in the Rockets' front office, were the reason Cassell slipped to the 24th pick in the first round. Despite quickness and the ability to get off his shot in traffic, Cassell was the eighth true guard selected.

"I wasn't disappointed, I was delighted I was chosen," said Cassell, who signed a five-year contract reported to be worth $5.2 million. "Everyone has their opinions, but I knew that at this level, I was going to be better than a lot of the guards picked ahead of me."

During the first couple of months of the regular season Cassell was the fourth guard in the four-guard rotation used by Tomjanovich.

Cassell eventually replaced Scott Brooks and is now the first guard.

"At the beginning of the season I wasn't playing, but once I learned the system and the rest of the league, I had to get the confidence of my teammates and the coaching staff," Cassell said.

"Now I think I have everyone's confidence."

And everyone's attention.


1st round, vs. Portland

Gm. .. W/L .. Min. .. Pts. .. Reb. .. Ast.

1 ..... W .... 14 .... 2 ..... 2 ...... 0

2 ..... W .... 26 .... 9 ..... 4 ...... 4

3 ..... L .... 16 .... 3 ..... 3 ...... 4

4 ..... W .... 12* ... 9 ..... 3 ...... 1

*-Ejected with 6:53 left in game

Conf. semifinals, vs. Phoenix

1 .. L .. 0** .. 0 .. 0 ... 0

2 .. L .. 23 .. 14 .. 0 ... 4

3 .. W .. 27 .. 12 .. 1 .. 10

4 .. W .. 25 .. 11 .. 0 ... 6

5 .. W .. 22 ... 8 .. 1 ... 7

6 .. L .. 25 ... 9 .. 6 ... 4

7 .. W .. 29 .. 22 .. 4 ... 7

**-Did not play, suspension

Conf. finals, vs. Utah

1 .. W .. 18 .. 9 .. 1 .. 7

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