NEW YORK -- He did this at Dunbar High, he did it at Florida State and now he's doing it in the NBA Finals. Madison Square Garden or Madison Square Recreation Center, it makes no difference. Sam Cassell is still hitting the big shots.
There he was last night, this skinny 195-pound rookie from Baltimore, taking a kick-out pass from Hakeem Olajuwon at the top of the three-point circle. Houston trailed New York by two points. Only 32.6 seconds remained. And Cassell drained the three.
He drained the three, then hit four free throws in the final 22 seconds. Rockets 93, Knicks 89. Seven points in barely half a minute. Seven points by the rookie, with the crowd roaring, and the Knicks threatening to suffocate the Rockets again.
"Cosell hit a big three," Patrick Ewing said.
Uh, someone set the Big Fella straight.
"I think he's courageous, I think he's fearless," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. He could have been talking about any Dunbar kid, but Cassell always has been a little different, a self-described free spirit who loves to play and hates to lose.
The Knicks had been 8-1 at home in the postseason. Now, under the 2-3-2 playoff format, they can't win the NBA title without returning to Houston. On a night Olajuwon shot 8-for-20, a night Vernon Maxwell shot 5-for-15, here was this skinny rookie, giving them the two-games-to-one lead.
"I don't look at him as a rookie," said Olajuwon, who is only 2-for-11 in the fourth quarter in this series. "He is an experienced player. He's very smart, and he plays with a lot of confidence. He takes some big shots, and he knows how to run the ballclub."
But oddly enough, Cassell doesn't start -- that job belongs to Kenny Smith, the seven-year veteran from North Carolina. Cassell had as many points last night (15) as Smith has in the entire series. Think about it: How many teams in NBA Finals history have turned to a rookie point guard at crunch time?
Smith can't be too happy, and Tomjanovich knows it. "I know it's very tough to take if you're a player," Tomjanovich said. "But my job is to win games. It worked for us during the season. There is no formula. It's a feeling. It's taking a chance. It's a gamble."
But a low-risk gamble. Afterward, Tomjanovich couldn't help but recall his pre-draft interview with Cassell. "That was the clincher for me," he said. "He showed some of the stuff that he did tonight with his attitude. It's just amazing -- the bigger the challenge, the more he steps up."
Tomjanovich knew what he was getting with the 24th pick -- he spoke with Cassell's coach at nearby San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, and was told that Cassell could be tough on his teammates, even his coaches, in a losing situation. "But I love that kind of stuff," Tomjanovich said. "I love work ethic, guys who want to be basketball players."
That's Cassell. He was one of the Rockets' goats in Game 2, missing six of eight shots, making poor decisions in the fourth quarter, drawing veiled criticism from Olajuwon. But it was just like him to rebound last night -- even after getting the wind knocked out of him by Derek Harper in the fourth quarter.
"Rudy is a player's coach," said Cassell, who hit four of his six shots last night, including all three of his three-pointers. "Players go through up-and-down situations. I was down in Game 2. He just told me, 'Sam, play your game, just go play. Don't let anybody pressure you. Just go have fun.' "
Which was all Cassell needed to hear. Before last night's game, he said the Rockets needed to "enjoy the game more, play looser, have fun." Late in the game, NBC captured him laughing as Harper talked trash in his ear. Game 3 of the NBA Finals. What a gas.
Courageous and fearless, that's what Tomjanovich called him. Early in the season, Cassell started three games when Smith was injured -- three games against B. J. Armstrong, John Stockton and Mark Jackson. The Rockets won all three, but Tomjanovich gave Smith his job back, and he had to wait his turn.
In a sense, he's still waiting -- last night, he sat for nearly 10 minutes before replacing Smith late in the first quarter. "We have certain guys to run the point and finish the game," Cassell said, diplomatically. "Sometimes, it's Kenny, and I get to watch him play. Sometimes, it's me."
It was him last night, even after the blow from Harper with 9:13 left. The Houston trainer administered smelling salts, and Cassell waved off a substitute. "I just don't come out of that game in that situation," he said. "This is the finals. I can heal in the summertime. It wasn't that bad."
Dunbar High, Florida State, the NBA Finals.
Sam Cassell wants the ball.
Sam Cassell wants to play.