ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sam Cassell has provided clutch performances for the Houston Rockets throughout the playoffs, yet when Kenny Smith got a hot hand in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the former Dunbar star was reduced to being a spectator.
Last night, Cassell was more than happy to return the favor.
Cassell sparked a big first-half run in which the Rockets took control of the game, and provided several huge shots in the second half as Houston held off a late rally by the Orlando Magic for a 117-106 win at sold-out Orlando Arena.
"I just knew I would get the opportunity," said Cassell. "In Game 1, Kenny kept me on the bench. [Last night] I kept him there."
Cassell finished with 31 points in 30 minutes. Hakeem Olajuwon scored 34 points. Robert Horry had 11 points, 10 rebounds and a Finals record seven steals for the Rockets, who won their seventh straight road game in the 1995 playoffs, establishing an NBA record for consecutive wins in a single season. It was also the team's ninth road win of the playoffs, also an NBA record.
And to avoid coming back here, the Rockets simply have to take care of business at home, with the next three games in Houston.
"I like our position," Olajuwon said. "We don't want to put so much pressure on ourselves so that we say we do not want to come back here. We have to block it out and look at it as if this is the championship game."
It was definitely a championship-type effort for the defending champions last night. The Rockets led by as many as 23 points.
Shaquille O'Neal had 33 points and 12 rebounds, and Anfernee Hardaway had 32 points and eight assists.
But Nick Anderson, who in Game 1 missed four free throws that would have won the game for Orlando in the last 10 seconds, scored only 11 points. And Orlando's bench was outscored 41-11.
Cassell did the damage. He did it from the outside, hitting four of six three-pointers. And he did it with his penetration to the basket, his 11 of 12 free throws an indication of his aggressiveness.
"The sign of a great team is having the ability of having different people step up and have big games," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "Tonight it was Sam Cassell."
And to think that Tomjanovich was concerned about his team earlier in the day during the shoot-around.
"There was just a look," Tomjanovich said. "The people [in Orlando] are great, the weather is great, things that allow you to get very comfortable. But there's no comfort until this thing is closed out. I was concerned, and they responded big-time."
Orlando didn't respond, missing its first six shots and trailing by nine after the first quarter.
And the second quarter was all Cassell, who scored 16 points. Left alone on the perimeter with the Magic double-teaming Olajuwon, he made his three-point shots. And working a pick-and-roll with the all-star center, Cassell was able to find seams to the basket. He scored 11 of Houston's final 13 points, including the final seven as the Rockets took a 63-41 halftime lead.
"I'm considered a spark plug to this team, and tonight we needed a spark," Cassell said. "I only played a little bit the other night, [so] I had a lot of energy."
When the Rockets made a run in the third quarter, closing to 14, it was Cassell again who provided a spark. He scored Houston's final six points of the quarter including a short jumper at the buzzer and the Rockets had a 90-71 lead.
They would need every bit of that cushion. That's because the Magic staged a furious comeback, in the final quarter with O'Neal and Hardaway leading the way. When Anderson scored on a driving layup with 1:26 left, the Magic had closed to 110-101.
But after missing a three-point shot on Houston's next possession, Cassell stole the outlet pass thrown by O'Neal. Olajuwon was fouled just seconds later, hit two free throws and the Rockets were going home with a chance to win the title for the second year in a row.
"In the second half I thought we did a fantastic job getting back in the game, but Horry and Cassell really made a difference in the game for them," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "We had no answer for Cassell."
ORLANDO MAGIC vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS (Rockets lead series, 2-0) Game 1: Rockets 120-118, OT
Last night: Rockets, 117-106
Tomorrow: At Houston, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday: At Houston, 9 p.m.
Friday: 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