Houston guard Vernon Maxwell, one of Cassell's closest friends, correctly predicted that Cassell would rebound from his poor showing. "He's Smilin' Sam," Maxwell said after Game 2. "He's the kind of guy who can miss eight shots in a row and still be just as confident that the ninth one is going in. You can't keep Sam Cassell down. He'll always come back to get you."
Cassell got New York in Game 3. The Knicks, who seem to bide their time in Madison Square Garden until the fourth quarter, erased a 16-point deficit to take an 88-86 lead, but with 32.6 seconds to go Cassell calmly fired in a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the lead back to Houston. He then made four free throws to secure the victory over the stunned Knicks, who, especially in the playoff's, have come to regard the final period as their birthright.
"He's not a rookie; I don't know if he's ever been a rookie," said Houston guard Mario Elie after the game. "You don't see nervousness in him. He plays every game as if he's down at the park."
Cassell is brash and confident, but he knows that assuming a rookie's proper modesty is sometimes the right thing to do. He made sure to credit Olajuwon for the kick-out pass that set up his three-pointer, and when he saw that the cluster of reporters around him was blocking teammate Robert Horry's path to his locker, he quickly called a halt to the postgame interviews.
Cassell, Maxwell and Starks all grabbed the spotlight at various times, but New York's Derek Harper was the best guard on cither team by Game 3's end. Harper scored 18 and 21 points, respectively, in Games 2 and 3, and on defense he continued his mastery over Kenny Smith that goes back to Harper's days with the Dallas Mavericks. With Harper putting the clamps on, Smith totaled only 15 points in the first three games.
None of that was enough to hold off the Rockets in Game 3, in which the Knicks lost their last chance when Ewing was called for an illegal pick on Maxwell with 23.7 seconds left. Afterward, the murmurs heard in the crowd and in the New York locker room were that a foul like that shouldn't be called with the game on the line. Somewhere the Chicago Bulls—losers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Knicks on a late, questionable call—are surely smiling.
By Sunday night the Rockets had reason to smile as well, but only slightly. After all, the next two games, on Wednesday and Friday, would be in New York (Games 6 and 7, if necessary, would be played in Houston Sunday and next Wednesday). "All we really know is that both teams can win on the other team's court," said forward Otis Thorpe. "Nobody has reason to feel overconfident, and nobody has reason to feel desperate."
Everyone, however, had reason to feel anticipation, because neither Ewing nor Olajuwon had put together a stellar effort yet. Despite all the fine performances from the supporting cast, there was the feeling that a champion wouldn't be crowned until one of the two leading men came up with a showstopper.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]