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ROCKETS HANG TOUGH FOR 93-89 VICTORY

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The Houston Rockets avoided another fourth-quarter fade Sunday night and guaranteed that if the Knicks come back to win the NBA championship they'll have to do it away from the raucous New York crowd.

Rookie guard Sam Cassell scored the Rockets' last seven points of the game as they hung on for a 93-89 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 NBA Finals.His 3-pointer with 32 seconds left gave the Rockets the lead for good at 89-88 and he added four free throws as Houston regained the homecourt advantage it had lost in Game 2.

In that game in Houston, they went without a field goal over the last 61/2 minutes. They nearly lost the opener when they let a 12-point lead drop to three with 2:13 left.

They nearly blew Sunday's game, but Cassell, who failed in the fourth quarter of Game 2, was the unlikely hero.

The Knicks had taken an 88-86 lead, only their third of the game, on Derek Harper's jumper with 52 seconds left. Houston got the ball to Hakeem Olajuwon who threw it back out to Cassell for the deciding 3-pointer, Houston's second in its last 10 attempts.

Patrick Ewing was called for an offensive foul when he bumped Vernon Maxwell on New York's next possession. Cassell made two free throws for a 91-88 lead with 22 seconds to play.

John Starks, who had made three of four 3-pointers in New York's Game 2 victory, missed a 3 with 10 seconds left and was fouled attempting another with 3.9 seconds left. He made the first free throw and Otis Thorpe rebounded the intentional miss of the second. Cassell made two more free throws to end the scoring.

Olajuwon had 21 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocked shots for the Rockets, while Robert Horry had 16 points and Cassell 15, nine in the fourth quarter.

Harper led New York with 21 points and Starks had 20 and nine assists. Ewing finished with 18 points, on 9-for-27 shooting, 12 rebounds and seven blocks.

Houston, a loser in its only two finals appearances in 1981 and 1986, can win the series with victories Wednesday and Friday in New York.

The Rockets had blown several other comfortable playoff leads. But with the possibility they could lose the best-of-7 series without returning to their homecourt, they played aggressively to avoid another flop.

They almost failed.

Houston led 69-63 after three quarters before the pace slowed. The Rockets led 77-71 with 6:25 left in the fourth quarter, then began to unravel.

After Ewing's putback cut the lead to four, Horry airballed a 3-pointer as the 24-second clock was running out. Harper made the score 77-75 with a basket from the top of the key.

Then Vernon Maxwell missed a 3-pointer under pressure. The Knicks ran off the rebound and Starks raced ahead of the field for a layup with 5:16 left that gave New York its first tie since 2-2.

Ewing gave New York its first lead with a jumper that made it 82-81 with 2:52 to go.

Houston's win extends the trend of home teams having trouble in the middle three games of the finals. They have now lost 13 of those last 15 games. And the last three times a team split the first two games at home, as Houston did, it went on to win the title.

The Knicks, who lost their eighth consecutive Game 3, lost for the second time in 11 home playoff games. Houston is just 3-6 in its last nine games in New York, but is 2-0 this season. In the playoffs, the Rockets are 5-3 on the road.

The Knicks are trying to extend the East's championship streak to six seasons. The last Western Conference team to win it was the Los Angeles Lakers, under current New York coach Pat Riley, in 1988.

Unlike the more sedate crowd at the first two games in Houston, Madison Square Garden's courtside seats were packed with big names. Movie director Spike Lee wore a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, tennis pro John McEnroe had a New York Rangers cap and his brother Patrick a New York Yankees hat.

The only Knicks hat in the area was worn by a young boy seated beside John F. Kennedy Jr. Jack Nicholson, a courtside fixture when Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, also was there.

Even before the game, the crowd chanted, "De-FENSE, De-FENSE."

But the famous rooters and the loud fans did little to keep the Rockets from dominating the first half. The Knicks' interior defense was looser than normal, allowing players to slash in for layups.

Houston, running off missed shots and getting more open jumpers than in the first two games, outscored New York 11-2 at the start of the game, built its biggest lead at 42-36 and took a 45-38 lead at halftime.

The Knicks used a 15-7 run to close within 18-17 with 3:04 left in the first quarter. But the Rockets ended the period with an 8-1 surge, making their last three shots. They also made their first three of the second for a 34-22 lead.

Houston scored eight straight points on a 3-pointer by Cassell, two free throws by Carl Herrera and another 3-pointer by Cassell. That pushed the lead to 42-26 with 6:18 left in the half.

The Knicks came back with their own eight-point run, including two baskets by Harper, cutting the lead to 42-34. Starks' two foul shots made it 45-38 and New York missed a chance to cut the lead further when Anthony Mason missed a dunk with 27 seconds to play.

The Rockets came out strong in the third quarter with a 14-7 start in which Olajuwon and Kenny Smith had six points each in the first 4:10 for a 59-45 lead. Smith had a total of five points in the first two games.

The Knicks drew to 59-51 but an 8-4 run put the Rockets back ahead 67-55 with 3:57 left in the third.

With the score 69-57, the Knicks got the last six points and trailed 69-63 going into the fourth quarter. They would have been closer, but Ewing made only one of eight shots in the third period.