NEW YORK -- Houston Rockets guard Sam Cassell was doubled over in pain after a collision with the New York Knicks' Derek Harper midway through the fourth quarter, but there was no way that the former Dunbar star was leaving the game.
"If I came out of the game, I knew that I might not have the opportunity to get back in," Cassell said. "This is the Finals."
So Cassell shook off the ill effects of getting the wind knocked out of him during a 20-second timeout. Then, with 32.6 seconds left and his team down, he coolly hit a wide-open three-pointer from the top of the key that helped the Rockets to a 93-89 win before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Cassell scored Houston's final seven points, and the Rockets benefited from a controversial offensive foul call against Patrick Ewing to take a 2-1 advantage in the series. The Rockets regained home-court advantage, with Game 4 to be played here Wednesday.
"Now this puts the pressure back on them," said Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, who led Houston with 21 points. "They have to win these two games."
They were put in that position because Cassell played a very productive 22 minutes, scoring 15 points off the bench -- one less than New York's entire bench.
The Rockets needed every one of those points, as they once again showed the effects of New York's stifling fourth-quarter defense.
The Knicks got off to a slow start, falling behind by as many as 16 points in the first half. But they fought back in the final quarter, leading 88-86 after Harper hit a jumper with 52.7 seconds left.
That's when Cassell changed the flow. Olajuwon got the ball in the low post and drew the attention of three defenders. He kicked the ball out to a wide-open Cassell who, with the shot clock winding down, calmly sank the jumper that gave the Rockets an 89-88 lead.
"Dream created it all," Cassell said. "I was wide-open, he made the pass, and I made the shot."
Still the game was not over. The Knicks also were hitting in the fourth quarter, when they shot 52.3 percent.
But on their next possession after Cassell's shot, Ewing was called for an offensive foul while setting a pick for John Starks. It was pretty much the Rockets' game after that.
"It was a judgment call," said referee Jake O'Donnell, who made the call. "The play was a pick-and-roll. [Ewing] moved his hip out and then he did it again. You don't get away with it twice."
The news that he moved his hip was a surprise to Ewing.
"I didn't think it was an offensive foul," Ewing said. "You can't make a call like that, especially at that point in the game. "
Ewing had 18 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks (also a Knicks playoff record). The Knicks center hit several key baseline jumpers during the fourth quarter, but he wound up hitting just nine of 29 shots in his duel against Olajuwon.
"I let Hakeem disrupt my shot with the way he flicks his hand at the ball when I get it," Ewing said. "That took away my rhythm."
The Knicks didn't have much rhythm early, scoring just 38 points in a first half in which they fell behind by as many as 16 points. While the Knicks struggled in hitting 39.5 percent of their shots in the first half, the Rockets were getting easy baskets, as seven of their 11 first-quarter field goals came on layups or dunks.
"I think we played with a lack of effort for some reason," said Harper, who had another big game with a team-high 21 points. "In the first half they were the aggressive team and we didn't play with the proper force that it takes to beat a team like Houston."
But the Knicks were able to keep things close thanks to their backcourt, with Starks adding 20 points and nine assists. While New York trailed by as many as 14 in the third quarter, it had come to within 69-63 after three quarters.
New York had owned the fourth quarter through the first two games, limiting the Rockets to 15.5 points and 18.4 percent shooting in the first two games. But while the Knicks were able to take their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter last night, the Rockets ended up with a breakthrough fourth quarter. Houston scored 24 points over the final 12 minutes.
"It was a big character win for us," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "I felt that Game 2 was a little bit demoralizing, and the Knicks can do that to you.
"They are so tough defensively and we didn't have a good fourth quarter [in Game 2]," he said. "I think we did a better job of executing. It really comes down to putting the ball in the basket."
Especially Cassell, whose big shot helped deal the Knicks only their second home loss in the playoffs.
"You think the Garden itself will win games for you," said Knicks coach Pat Riley. "But you have to do it yourself. It was just a scatter game."
And a loss that brings a lot of pressure on the Knicks. With a loss on Wednesday, they would have to look at winning the final three games of the series -- including the final two in Houston.
"We have to find a way to come out and play with more intensity at the start," Harper said.
Said Riley: "I don't know the answer . . . . but we have not played with the kind of intensity until it's almost a desperate situation."
NOTES: The team that has won Game 3 has gone on to win 33 NBA Finals and lose 14 (.702 mark). The Game 3 winner has won five of the last six Finals. . . . The Rockets out-rebounded the Knicks, 47-42, and have out-rebounded New York in five of six meetings this season, winning all five games in which they had the rebounding edge. The Knicks out-rebounded Houston, 39-38, in the Game 2 victory. . . . Bench scoring also has been an indicator in the Finals so far, with the team getting the most points by its reserves winning all three games. . . .
Ewing's seven blocks broke his previous career best of six, which he most recently equaled in Game 2. Olajuwon had seven blocks, three shy of his career high and one shy of the Finals record (which Olajuwon shares with Bill Walton). . . .
Harper was shocked that his teammates didn't come out playing tougher in Game 3. "I think it's unfortunate that our backs have to be against the wall in order for us to play the way we're capable of playing," he said. "But it has been that way all season."
Bob Lanier interviewed Bob Lanier on the radio. The Hall of Fame center, who does color commentary on the NBA Radio network, had Houston mayor Bob Lanier as his halftime guest for Game 1. The mayor, who is 6 feet 4, said he wears size 12 shoes and his father wore size 15. The 6-10 announcer wears size 22.
NEW YORK KNICKS vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS
(Rockets lead series, 2-1)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Houston 93, New York 89
Date ... ... ... Site ... ... ... ... Time
Wednesday .. ... at New York .. .. .. 9
Friday .. .. ... at New York .. .. .. 9
Sunday * ... ... at Houston ... .. .. 7
June 22 * .. ... at Houston ... .. .. 9
* -- If necessary
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4