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John Starks tried to be the hero. So did Derek Harper, Otis Thorpe, Patrick Ewing and Robert Horry.

In the end, however, it was an unlikely player, a skinny rookie named Sam Cassell, who grabbed the hero's role and held it until Houston had a 93-89 victory and a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals against the New York Knicks.Cassell, playing the entire fourth quarter although he is a reserve point guard, scored Houston's last seven points, hit a 3-pointer that put the Rockets ahead to stay and had nine of his 15 points in the final period Sunday night.

"Every game, someone different is going to step up," Cassell said. "Dream (Hakeem Olajuwon) will do everything out there, but we need different guys to give him help. If we help each other out, we'll be fine."

Olajuwon has led the Rockets in scoring in all three games, but he had a series-low 21 points on 8-for-20 shooting Sunday night and he is now 2-for-12 in the fourth quarter in the series. He needed all the help he could get in Game 3, and he got it from Cassell.

"I don't look at him like a rookie," Olajuwon said. "He's an experienced player who grew up playing in the park. He's very smart, knows how to use his body and knows how to run the team."

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said he doesn't hesitate to use Cassell in the fourth quarter, even though starting point guard Kenny Smith has far more experience.

"The bigger the challenge, the more he steps up," Tomjanovich said of Cassell. "He's still a young player, so he hasn't done it a thousand times. But he has that quality in him."

Houston led by as many as 16 points in the first half, by 14 in the third quarter and never trailed until Ewing's baseline jumper gave the Knicks an 82-81 lead with just 2:52 left in the game.

Ewing also gave New York an 86-84 lead with 1:29 left and finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots. But the hero's crown did not fit as he missed 20 of his 29 shots in the game and committed a crucial offensive foul with the Knicks trailing 89-88 in the final minute.

Harper, with 21 points and Starks, with 20, also tried to step up for the Knicks. Both had seven points in the fourth quarter.

Starks hit a free throw and a 3-pointer to close the Knicks to a 73-71 deficit early in the period, and his fastbreak layup tied the score 77-77, the first time New York was even since it was 2-2.

Harper hit a 3-pointer just before Ewing gave the Knicks their first lead, and he had a jumper to give them an 88-86 advantage with just 52 seconds left.

That was when Cassell took over.

With Olajuwon surrounded after taking a pass inside, he passed to Cassell for the go-ahead 3-pointer at the top of the key, making it 89-88.

"I made a move, but I saw him open and went for three points instead of two," said Olajuwon, who also blocked seven shots. "I wasn't comfortable taking an off-balance jump hook."

Ewing then was whistled for an offensive foul while trying to set a screen on Vernon Maxwell for Starks, and Cassell hit four free throws without a miss in the final seconds, sealing the outcome.

"I didn't think it was an offensive foul, especially at that point in the game," Ewing said. "I didn't think I put a hip into him. It's a tough call at that point of the game, 22 seconds left."

Referee Jake O'Donnell said he saw Ewing stick out his hip twice.

"He moved his hip out and then he did it again," O'Donnell said. "I'm not gonna let it be twice. You don't get away with it twice."

Harper said the Knicks "played with a lack of effort. We allowed them things that made them a good basketball team. We did not play with enough force. I can't say why. Guys come to a game, they think they're prepared and they're not."

Riley agreed with Harper, saying the Knicks "weren't in the same mental mind as we were Friday" when New York won Game 2. "I thought we were scattered."