Sam I Am

From the moment he first turned pro more than a decade ago, Sam Cassell has been a fearless scorer who craves the spotlight in pressure situations. He announced himself as such to fans across the nation on the grand stage of the NBA playoffs during his rookie year with the Houston Rockets, making the postseason his debutantes' ball. When Houston's opponents packed their defense to stop Hakeem Olajuwon in the low post, Cassell was the antidote, the jolt of energy off the bench, replacing the steadier veteran Kenny Smith. A motormouth jitterbug with a shiny dome, he was the X factor, goosing the rhythm and galvanizing the offense. The Rockets won championship rings his first two years in the league.

After that it was a mixed bag. Traded to Phoenix after three years in Houston, Cassell began to develop a reputation as a headstrong point guard who sparred with coaches and management, went through the motions on defense, and begged out of practice. He lasted 22 games in Phoenix, 16 in Dallas, and less than two years in New Jersey. His five years in Milwaukee were a roller coaster of events that included a spirited playoff run to the conference finals and constant bickering between coach George Karl and his trio of stars, Cassell included. Near the end of his tenure, Cassell was involved in a public contract squabble and chafed when the Bucks asked him to share point guard duties with future Hall of Famer Gary Payton.

For all these reasons, there was some trepidation as well as joy felt by Wolves fans when Minnesota acquired Cassell this summer. Holdover point guard Troy Hudson had just concluded a fabulous playoff series against the Lakers, but, true to form, Cassell immediately announced he had no intention of coming off the bench. And stylistically, Cassell's career-long proclivity for dominating possession of the ball while running an offense seemed antithetical to coach Flip Saunders's philosophy of constant ball movement--and to the ball-handling needs of the proven scorers on the revamped Wolves roster. Going into this season, probably the biggest question mark regarding team chemistry was how capably Saunders and Cassell would coexist.

Well, nearly halfway through the season, the Wolves are 26-12 despite injuries to three of their top six players, and Cassell is on the verge of being invited to play in the NBA all-star game for the first time in his career. There are a number of factors to explain why Cassell has by now vanquished all doubts and become such a good fit for the Wolves. The emergence of defensive-oriented role players like Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson replacing the injured Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi in the starting lineup has created more of an onus, and opportunity, for Minnesota's star trio of Kevin Garnett, Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell (in that order) to dominate the scoring. KG has set the tone for the crisp passing Saunders preaches, and has prodded, by word and example, Cassell into upgrading his defense above mediocrity. And Sprewell has used his veteran's savvy to generate shots in the context of being the third option on a team that shares the ball.

But most of the credit belongs to Cassell and, to a lesser extent, Saunders, who through mutual and respectful compromise have enhanced each other's talent. This fall, Cassell complied with the coach's request that for the first time in his 11-year career, he participate in every preseason practice. And after a fitful first month of the season, in which he was occasionally forcing shots, Cassell has settled into the demands of directing Saunders's offensive sets. He has acceded to KG's primacy in the offense, to the point where Cassell and Garnett working the perimeter pick-and-roll has become the Wolves' most reliable scoring option. And he has created or exploited open looks for all his teammates, from Garnett to Hassell to Hoiberg and Madsen, with impressive frequency.

But in the fourth quarter--crunch time, when Cassell is at his fearless best--it is Saunders's turn to compromise. As I've mentioned before, Saunders's system is designed for the Wolves to score two-point shots, rather than threes or ones. But that changes when Sammy takes over late in the game.

The numbers are striking. The field goal percentages of KG and Spree both plummet in the fourth quarter. Garnett hits 43.3 percent of his shots in the final 12 minutes, versus 49.5 percent overall. Spree, who shoots least often in the fourth quarter, is at just 28.5 percent. Cassell's fourth quarter shooting is a remarkable 50.3 percent. He shoots more threes in the final quarter than at any other time, and makes 54.5 percent of them. And the number of foul shots he generates goes way up--54 attempts in the fourth quarter, versus his next-highest total of 33 free throws in the second quarter. Not surprisingly, he also registers less than half as many assists in the fourth as in any other quarter.

Put simply, Cassell ignores the offensive sets and goes for his own at crunch time. And Saunders lets him. The result has been an inordinate number of stirring comebacks and refusals to fold under pressure, most prominently displayed in last week's upset on the road against San Antonio. The spotlight is on Sammy, and he's never looked better.

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