It's breakout time for Cassell


His clutch play during last year's playoffs was a key to the Houston Rockets' NBA title -- thus the high expectations this season for Sam Cassell.

And though his scoring and assist average improved from his first to second year, Cassell didn't have the breakout season that many expected.

"The way I am, personally, I was just hanging in there and #F hanging in there until the playoffs," Cassell said from his home in Houston. "That's when the cream always rises to the top."

And when it comes to pivotal games in the playoffs, that's when Cassell's play rises to another level. The former Dunbar guard scored 30 points Tuesday -- 22 in the second half -- to help lift the Rockets to an 111-90 win in Game 5 over the San Antonio Spurs. Cassell contributed 10 points to Houston's series-clinching, 100-95 victory Thursday in Game 6, putting the Rockets back into the NBA Finals, which start in Orlando tomorrow against the Magic. With 40 playoff games behind him, there isn't a second-year player in the league with as much postseason experience as Cassell.

And when it comes to games 5, 6 and 7 of a series, Cassell has been at his best. In 11 games in that situation, Cassell has averaged 13.3 points and 5.2 assists, has hit 53.4 percent from the field (46 of 86), 41.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc (14 of 30) and 91.1 percent from the free-throw line (41 of 45).

His numbers in the other 29 playoff games: 8.5 points and 3.9 assists, 36.5 percent from the field (76 of 208), 35.7 percent from beyond the three-point line (20 of 56) and 82.2 percent from the free-throw line (74 of 90).

"Sam's so tough. He has the heart of a lion," Houston forward Mario Elie told reporters in Houston last week. "I love him. With Sam, you get one of two things, he's up or down, but mostly he'll get up."

Mention the clutch play to Cassell, and he says it's a product of competitive situations growing up in Baltimore.

"I think it goes back to high school and younger, being a guy where the team always expected me to do something," said Cassell, who, in the 1988-89 season at Dunbar High, was named The Baltimore Sun's boys Player of the Year. "I don't mind the pressure, because pressure to me is just a feeling. Some people might not like the ball under pressure -- I do."

A nation of basketball fans -- and the New York Knicks -- found that out last year during the Finals. After the Rockets lost the home-court advantage in a defeat to the Knicks in Game 2 at The Summit, Cassell stepped into Madison Square Garden in Game 3 and scored 15 points, including his team's last seven. Cassell's three-pointer with 32 seconds left gave Houston the lead, and the Rockets went on to win, 93-89 -- an important moment, because the home-court advantage held up the rest of that series.

It was much different from the beginning of his rookie season, when Cassell, a first-round pick out of Florida State, hardly had a chance to remove his sweats.

"I don't get caught up in thinking about how quickly things have happened for me," Cassell said. "I just like to take things one day at a time. I'm lucky that I'm playing with an organization I'm comfortable with and the organization is comfortable with me. Hopefully, when I'm done with my current contract [two years remaining], I can sign a long-term contract and stay here most of my career."

Cassell stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 185 pounds, and -- unlike Shaquille O'Neal, teammate Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan -- his greatest moves aren't packaged on videotapes, because he's not a physically imposing player. What Cassell possesses is a fearlessness, an ability to take big shots and to drive the lane against big men when necessary.

"When we talked to him in our interview before the draft, you could tell the toughness, the playground mentality," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich told the media last week. "Sometimes, that's not always good, but with him, it's doing everything and dTC anything it takes to win and having no fear."

Cassell credits playing alongside Olajuwon as a reason his game has been able to flourish in key moments.

"It's magnificent playing with him," Cassell said. "Just having a guy like that on the ballclub makes my job easier, because everyone has to pay attention to him. Sometimes, I just want to go in the stands with some popcorn and a pop and watch."

Which is what Cassell finds himself doing when he watches the latest family star -- his mother -- in those Reebok commercials with the mothers of Muggsy Bogues and other NBA players.

"It's a great spot, and she's great," Cassell said. "It's simply her expressing how she felt about me, along with the mothers of other athletes. What's better than having the person closest to you -- your mother -- talking about you?"

The entire NBA is talking about Cassell and the Rockets. The sixth seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs, Houston has defeated the teams seeded Nos. 3 (Utah Jazz), 2 (Phoenix Suns) and 1 (Spurs).

"It feels like we're a team of destiny," Cassell said. "During the regular season, we worked hard to find our chemistry, and it was tough at times.

"But we all stuck together, and when the playoffs started, it all started to jell. We feel good about ourselves."



(Best of seven)

Tomorrow: At Orlando, 9 p.m.

Friday: At Orlando, 9 p.m.

Sunday: At Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 14: At Houston, 9 p.m.

June 16: At Houston, 9 p.m.*

June 18: At Orlando, 7:30 p.m.*

June 21: At Orlando, 9 p.m.*

* -- if necessary; TV: Chs. 11, 4

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