Cassell 'gets into flow,' spoils Spurs' quiet evening at home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN ANTONIO -- Next.

Operation Mints On The Pillow failed in a big way last night, after the San Antonio Spurs, trying to simulate the road experience that has been so successful the last nine days, checked into a hotel in their own town and then came close to checking out of the NBA Western Conference finals. In other words, they didn't get a per diem and they didn't get a victory.

What the Spurs got instead was the wrong side of five-star play by Hakeem Olajuwon (42 points), as usual, and Sam Cassell (30), for a change.

That added up to a 111-90 victory for Houston before 35,888 at the Alamodome, giving the Rockets a 3-2 series lead and moving them within one victory of a second consecutive trip to the championship round.

The road team has won every game in this series, the first time that has happened over five playoff contests since the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers played in the first round in 1984. Moreover, the last two outings were routs.

Spurs coach Bob Hill, as confounded as anyone, turned psychologist and tried to make Game 5 seem like a road game. At least it seemed like a good idea.

"This morning," Hill said of yesterday's shoot-around, "we were alive and alert and ready to go."

Then they played the game.

The Spurs settled into a half-court game, a style that Houston preferred, and the Rockets bolted to a 30-14 lead. It was 32-18 after the first quarter and San Antonio had committed eight of its 22 turnovers.

The hosts -- such as they were on this night -- got back into the game by halftime. Late in the third quarter, with 2:34 remaining, they caught the Spurs at 71-71.

Enter Cassell. After scoring 25 points in the first four games, shooting a dreadful 28.6 percent in the process, the Baltimore Dunbar High alum scored 16 as the Rockets went on a 25-8 run to turn the tie into a blowout with 7:13 remaining.

"He got into a flow," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "When he gets into a flow, he's a special player."

Said Cassell of his emergence from hibernation: "Opportunities. I took what they gave me. It's as simple as that. They gave me the layup, I took the layup. They gave me the outside shot, I took the outside shot."

So dominating was Cassell for the stretch that he even took what they didn't give him. For production, it only became two of his points, along with 12 assists, in 37 minutes off the bench. But for impact, it was huge, if not crippling.

It came with the Rockets leading by 13, 92-79, but San Antonio trying to mount a challenge after having scored on three of its previous four possessions.

At least they could have were it not for Cassell. At 6-3 and sandwiched between his man, Doc Rivers, and the world's best rebounder, Dennis Rodman, he controlled the offensive board, then got fouled by Rivers while going up. Cassell made both free throws with 7:52 left. That was the last the Spurs saw of a game.

"It's tough," Spurs center David Robinson said after getting 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots in the losing effort. "It takes the steam out of you when you're scrambling and trying to get something going and they make a play like that."

If that play or that player didn't do it, Olajuwon did.

The only question was whether it was the 42 points on 19-of-30 shooting, many with the usual Olajuwon off-balance flair, or the eight assists, which compensated for the sub-par showing of only nine rebounds. Or the five blocked shots.

"I think in some regard," Hill said, "his performance broke our spirit.

"Hakeem seemed like he made every shot. He had a phenomenal performance."

If that's where they were. Tough to tell from the Rodman Saga, since that will follow the Spurs anywhere.

This time, he arrived 35 minutes late to practice on Monday and was benched in favor of J. R. Reid the next night. He went 34 minutes in all, getting 12 rebounds, but only two on offense.

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