LOS ANGELES - When Sam Cassell joined the Celtics, he said he wasn't interested in competing for a starting position, or even gaining significant playing time. But Cassell believed his NBA championship experience in Houston could give the Celtics an edge this time of the year.
Cassell proved prophetic during a brief, but productive, fourth-quarter span that recalled his Rocket days, the Celtics rallying before falling, 103-98, to the Lakers last night at Staples Center.
"I'm ready, I've been in that situation before," Cassell said. "We have three point guards, and who's got it going gets in. All three of us understand that."
The Celtics have gone with the hot hand at the position after Rajon Rondo (ankle) was injured in Game 3. Eddie House helped ignite a Game 4 rally that moved the Celtics to the verge of clinching the series.
And Cassell nearly matched House's performance in Game 5, scoring 7 points in a 91-second span during a game-tying rally.
The Celtics went on a 16-2 run over 4:17 in the final quarter, tying the score at 90 when Kevin Garnett scored with 4:35 left.
Cassell's baseline jumper started the run, cutting the deficit to 88-76 with 8:52 remaining. Seventeen seconds later, Cassell tangled with Sasha Vujacic, who went down hard after both players grabbed a rebound off a Laker miss.
Cassell then cut the deficit to 88-79 with a 3-point play with 8:04 to go and 90-81 with 7:21 remaining with a second-chance drive, Garnett setting up the score by rebounding a Cassell miss.
Though Cassell seemed to have his shooting rhythm, not everything had been going his way before the fourth-quarter success.
Cassell's jumper had pulled the Celtics within 74-70 with 3:04 left in the third quarter. Then, he launched an off-target long-range shot early in the shot clock, the Lakers turning the long rebound into a mismatch, Pau Gasol against Cassell; Garnett retreated in time to commit his fourth foul and Gasol's foul shot gave the Lakers a 76-70 lead with 2:31 remaining.
"We spent a lot of energy [in the fourth-quarter rally]," Cassell said. "Every play was crucial and we didn't make the crucial plays.
"We've got to get off to a better start. It's concentration. You can't win when you are down that many points in the first quarter. It's just concentration.
"But this team amazes me every time we play. Now it's Game 6 in Boston and our crowd will be pumped. They will be pumped, no doubt about it. The game starts at 9 o'clock and they will be there at 6 o'clock, ready. But the game is still played on the court and we'll prepare right and we should be all right."
Cassell often says the NBA has become less physical in recent years, with fewer confrontations between players. The Cassell-Vujacic duel recalled the scraps of past playoff series, though it was much more tame than, say, the Kevin McHale clotheslining of Kurt Rambis in the 1984 Finals.
"I just got the ball, it was a jump ball, and [Vujacic] was off balance," Cassell said. "I didn't throw him hard.
"Down the stretch, it's a physical game. We did a good job stopping the 3-pointers, but you can't give up offensive rebounds and second shots in the fourth quarter.
"The Lakers have been getting off to great starts and we've been playing catch-up ball. We've been catching up, but you can't do that all the time. Things didn't go our way. Give the Lakers credit, they live to fight another day."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.