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Captains of Crunch Time

NBA PLAYOFFS | CLIPPERS 114, PHOENIX 107 | J.A. Adande

Cassell Puts Exclamation Mark to His Time in L.A.

May 15, 2006|J.A. Adande

Sam Cassell could not have provided any more validation Sunday if he had stamped the parking tickets of all 19,897 fans at Staples Center.

Why did Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor win the NBA's executive-of-the-year award? Start with No. 19 in the home white jersey, who was acquired in a trade last summer.

Why did the media and fans jump on Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy for sitting Cassell for all but 35 seconds of the fourth quarter in Game 3? Let's fast-forward the TiVo to the final minute of Game 4.

The Clippers were clinging to a three-point lead, the remnants of what had been a 13-point advantage five minutes earlier. The Clippers worked the two-man game with Cassell and Elton Brand. Cassell came off a screen by Brand, found just enough space away from Shawn Marion, and fired a three-point shot.

Money. A little breathing room. A six-point lead that was enough to withstand the last gasp from the Phoenix Suns and secure a 114-107 victory.

"If you know me, I'm going to take that kind of shot in the fourth quarter," Cassell said.

Yeah, Sam. I know. I was there when you drilled the winning shot in Game 3 of the 1994 NBA Finals in Madison Square Garden your rookie season with the Houston Rockets. Watched you do it time and time again in the years since then. Love it when you break out the little dance that, uh, celebrates your masculinity, as you did again Sunday.

With Cassell, it's all about the attitude.

"It's a big difference, bringing that swagger to us," Brand said. "We just have to keep it and do it every game. Last game it was disappointing, being up three with three minutes. We needed that swagger then."

He didn't mean that as a knock on Dunleavy's decision to keep Cassell on the bench for the first 10 minutes and 43 seconds of the fourth quarter in Game 3. There were plenty of others who had harped on that in the previous 44 hours. Dunleavy defended his decision to go with Shaun Livingston and a defensive lineup in that close game. Cassell didn't publicly second-guess his coach. Dunleavy publicly maintained that he would have done the same thing if he had another chance. But in private, Dunleavy apparently let Cassell know that it wouldn't happen again.

"He came to me and said his bad for not putting me in there earlier," said Cassell, who was popsicle-cold when he hoisted an airball on his only shot in the fourth quarter of the Game 3 loss. "I knew that Game 4 I was going to be in the fourth quarter a lot. That wasn't a concern."

To be fair, Cassell did more to earn the playing time in this one. Friday night he didn't react well to Phoenix's adjustment to have the taller Marion cover him, and Cassell shot two for 10. On Sunday, thanks in part to Marion's foul trouble, Cassell was more aggressive, had more freedom and more results: a near-triple-double with 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

After a flurry in which he scored 10 consecutive points for the Clippers, Cassell faded and missed his last three shots of the third quarter. It was understandable when he was out at the start of the fourth. But everyone in Clippers Country kept glancing nervously back and forth from the clock to the bench. With 7:19 remaining, Cassell subbed in. It was like watching "the Wolf" pull up in his black car in "Pulp Fiction." This is Cassell's thing. It's why he has to play in crunch time.

"Everybody doesn't want the ball in the fourth quarter," Cassell said. "I'm a guy who enjoys getting the ball. That's the difference. Myself, I just like having the basketball. If we lose, you guys can blame me. That doesn't bother me."

Acquiring Cassell was the deal that turned the Clippers' off-season from a so-so summer into a big accomplishment. The Clippers had signed Cuttino Mobley, but that was offset by the departure of Bobby Simmons.

Cassell was the perfect piece for a team filled with talented young players who hadn't won anything in the pros. The Clippers were 3-14 in games decided by three points or less last season. These things happen when you have Rick Brunson and Kenny Anderson taking the crucial shots for you. Cassell, as he likes to say, was "just what the doctor ordered."

Baylor knew Marko Jaric wouldn't be content to be Livingston's backup as Livingston emerged. Jaric's agent, Bill Duffy, had already been gauging interest from other teams. All Baylor was looking for was a first-round draft pick. Utah was a possibility. Minnesota was a better one. The Timberwolves had suffered through a massively disappointing season that fell short of the playoffs. Cassell took part of the blame. He was getting older, and entering a contract year.

But the Clippers saw everything Cassell offered as a valuable asset.

"We didn't have a guy with Cassell's shooting ability and his experience," Baylor said.

After August 12, they did.

Nine months (and a Chris Wilcox-for-Vladimir Radmanovic trade) later, Baylor has his executive-of-the-year award. And the Clippers have a chance to make the Western Conference finals by winning two of the three games left in this series.

If you're wondering how things worked out for Jaric and Minnesota, during one game this season a Timberwolves player told a Clipper: "You can have him back."

That's the sign of a good trade. Because Cassell, as we saw again Sunday, is a guy you have to have in during the fourth quarter.

*

\o7J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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