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ROOKIE’S STREETBALL SAVVY PAYS OFF FOR THE ROCKETS

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Spring for the uniforms, take them down to the corner playground and stage your own NBA Finals. You couldn't do much worse than the version Houston and New York are torturing a national television audience with.

And who knows? The experience just might come in handy someday.Sam Cassell played in a few pickup games just as ragged and at least as rugged as the one he decided Sunday night by scoring seven points over the final 32 seconds. But those rough-and-tumble affairs took place on the playgrounds in Baltimore when he was a kid - not as a rookie with the Rockets in the decidedly unfriendly confines of Madison Square Garden.

"There must have been a few like that," Cassell said, grinning as he watched the stands empty. "They're just not coming to me right now."

With the game on the line, conventional wisdom dictates you don't look for the most inexperienced player in your lineup, even if he also happens to be the most street-wise.

And at times like those, you don't necessarily look for the smallest player on the floor, either. Or the guy who plays so out of control at moments that he describes himself, guilelessly, as "sometimes a bad spark, sometimes a good spark." Especially when, a few minutes into the fourth quarter, that guy is writhing on the floor, doubled up in pain.

But at the end of that same quarter, when three Knick defenders made a sandwich of Hakeem Olajuwon down in the paint, the Rockets center knew exactly who to look for.

"I don't consider Sam a rookie," Olajuwon said. "He's an experienced player."

How so?

"He played on the streets a lot," Olajuwon said.

The earnestness in Hakeem's expression suggested he was not kidding. Laugh if you want, but the answer makes as much sense as anything else in this madcap series. Indeed, streetball might be too gracious a description of the goings-on.

Houston's 93-89 win was secured after Cassell smoothly stroked the 3-pointer, then calmly made four free throws down the stretch. It only took some 30 clicks of the game clock, but it might have been the best sustained offensive stretch of the evening. Maybe even the series.

"It's a war out there," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "You've got a lot of big bodies out there working really hard. I know a lot of people don't appreciate it, but it's hard work and not easy to do."

Apparently not. All told, the two teams combined for 43 fouls, 28 turnovers, 40 percent shooting and who-knows-how-many slips, stumbles and airballs. But just to make sure the Knicks don't lay claim to the title of NBA's worst offense without a battle, the Rockets staged their own offensive work stoppage for the third straight game

Late in the third quarter, they launched a stretch of sheer incompetence that would extend 10 minutes and 27 seconds without a basket - well into the middle of the fourth quarter. That, by itself, would have been numbing enough. But following similar scoreless stretches of 11 minutes in Game 1 and 6 minutes, 30 seconds in Game 2 - the last 6:30 of the game, no less - it seemed surprising that any Houston player was willing to catch the ball, let alone shoot it.

Into that breach, fortunately for the Rockets, stepped Cassell. Maybe he just didn't know any better.

"I think he's courageous. I think he's fearless. But sometimes," Tomjanovich added, "that gets him in trouble."

Even so, but it wasn't like the Rockets had that many alternatives to select from at the finish. When he caught the pass in the lane and sensed the Knicks defenders converging, Olajuwon was at the end of a night that would conclude with him shooting a very pedestrian 8-for-20. In three fourth-quarter performances against New York now, he has had exactly 12 shots and converted just two. No wonder he was willing to entrust the last gasp to Cassell.

"I know it's the finals," Cassell said, "but I'm just taking it like any other game."

Considering some of the other games he's played in, the Rockets couldn't have picked a better man for the job.