THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Point system

Cassell entrenched as backup, while House is the forgotten man

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 8, 2008

In this game, a coach is better off when he has limited options. There's a lot less second-guessing.

For the first 61 games this season, Doc Rivers had no problems managing his point guard position. Rajon Rondo was the starter and Eddie House was the backup. They had complementary strengths, and you had to say things were working. The Celtics' record was 49-12.

But in Game 62 the tinkering began. That's when Sam Cassell was activated.

Cassell, age 38, was obtained from the Los Angeles Clippers amid great fanfare. He was imported with an eye toward the spring, toward the Games That Really Matter. He would bring veteran experience. He had long ago acquired a reputation for being a man who was unafraid to take the big shots, and who could actually make them, and he quickly lived up to his billing with a very big 3-pointer in the final minute of a victory in San Antonio. In the Celtics' inner chambers, there had to be a lot of back-patting and high-fiving going on that night.

The Games That Really Matter are here, and Cassell has become an issue. For he has turned out to be a trick-or-treat kind of guy, and really not all that much of a point guard, at least not if a reasonable point guard measurement is what he does for other players. Sam gets shots, all right. For Sam.

And that's quite all right if they're going in. Cassell was rightfully saluted for shooting 6 for 8 in the 110-85 conquest of the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5, and he was once again praised for making three fourth-quarter field goals (two threes and a long two listed as a 22-footer on the play-by-play) in Tuesday night's 76-72 tooth pull with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were big shots, indeed, more tales for the Legend of Sam Cassell.

Sam is Sam, all right. He has lived up to the gunslinger image he started creating for himself as a brash Houston Rockets rookie 15 years ago. But in days gone by, Sam could also distribute the ball nicely when he wasn't firing up jump shots. This is a guy who has averaged as many as nine assists a game (Milwaukee, 1999-2000) and who, as recently as 2005-06, averaged 6.3 per for the Clippers.

Where has that Sam Cassell gone? This version gives up the ball under court order only. If he's got it, the ball is going up. In the last two games, the backup point guard of the Boston Celtics has zero assists in 25 minutes of playing time. In the playoffs, he has 49 shot attempts and nine assists in 111 minutes. And it's not as if he doesn't have anyone on his side worthy of receiving his passes.

Meanwhile, House is in the Celtics Point Guard Protection Program. Poor Eddie. He didn't do anything wrong. It's not as if anyone was under any illusions about just what Eddie's game was. Eddie's the kind of guy who, when he enters a new locale, has to register his jump shot with the local police. Eddie is really a shooting guard in a point guard's body, but that's not really a revelation, is it?

The playoffs have come, and Eddie is a non-person. He has seen 31 minutes of action, all of it garbage time or extremely situational (e.g. the last few seconds of a quarter when there is a theoretical chance to get off a three).

With Paul Pierce and Ray Allen laboring through that combined 2-for-18 horror show in Game 1 against Cleveland, wouldn't it seem as if there might have been a spot for Eddie? Or has it gone too far? In other words, since he hasn't played, Doc could be figuring it wouldn't even be fair at this point to put Eddie in and say, "Hey, how's about making a couple of threes for us?"

Eddie's still in uniform, but Eddie is invisible.

So Doc has been dividing the time between 22-year-old Rajon Rondo and 38-year-old Sam Cassell. It worked beautifully Tuesday, when they combined for 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists while shooting 9 for 16. Rondo had a very big first half, abusing ex-teammate Delonte West with artful drives. Along with Kevin Garnett, he gave the Celtics their 12-point lead.

Rondo watched for most of the fourth quarter as Cassell got the minutes. Rondo was part of a defense-offense shuffle from the 2:58 mark to the 1:30 juncture, and he was on the floor for Cleveland's final possession. But the crunch-time minutes went to the vet.

Things did not go so well in Atlanta last Friday night for Game 6. Cassell pretty much shot the Celtics out of the game in the second quarter, and since he can no longer stay with most rival point guards at the other end, he was an official liability. Two months ago, House would have had those minutes and, while he might have done nothing with them, he might also have hit a few bombs. Eddie is fast becoming better in memory than he was in reality. For some, he is the classically beloved backup quarterback, the most popular guy in town as long as he doesn't play.

Rondo is pretty popular himself, with good reason. He is a constant defensive menace, he is always a threat to get loose in transition, he can really take it to the hoop, he is an absolutely phenomenal 6-foot-1-inch rebounder, and he brings pure youthful energy to the table. He has also become a reliable open shooter. But in Doc's coaching eyes (and Danny Ainge's, too, you can be sure), all this does not make him a better option than a fading Sam Cassell in the Games That Really Matter. Rajon Rondo is still new to all this.

Sam was out there in the fourth quarter because Doc wanted Kendrick Perkins to be flanked by four bona fide shooters who would discourage double teams. And there was a classic Sam moment when he ball-faked LeBron James, sending the youngster to his right in the direction of Garnett. That gave Sam plenty of room, plus time to get his feet set for a three. That's a shot you always want Sam Cassell to take. He took it and he made it.

Rivers is especially pleased to have Cassell for the road games. Rondo was not horrible in Atlanta (a 12-assist Game 4, for example). But he was clearly better at home. Sam's pretty much oblivious to locale.

The man is 38. He's not the complete package he once was, but he retains 100 percent of his moxie. Sam is here. That means Rondo will continue to watch during most big moments, and so will House. They brought Cassell in here to play the Games That Really Matter, didn't they?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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