Game 4: Cassell plays only five minutes

Updated: May 28, 2004, 2:08 AM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Despite his pain, Sam Cassell just couldn't stand to sit and watch.

So the All-Star point guard gave it a go in the third quarter of Game 3 in the Western Conference finals.

For a brief period, his presence seemed to spark the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then reality set in.

Hampered by recurring back spasms and an injured hip, Cassell lasted less than five minutes and the Timberwolves lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 92-85 on Thursday night to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Cassell said he made the decision to try and play at halftime, explaining: "I'm a fighter, man, I'm a fighter" as he left the Timberwolves' locker room afterward.

"He's obviously hurting really bad," teammate Wally Szczerbiak said. "It doesn't look like we're going to get much from him in the next game."

Game 5 is Saturday night in Minnesota.

"It was a valiant effort," Szczerbiak said. "It's the playoffs -- he's trying to give us whatever he can. Everyone who stepped on the floor left it all out there. We just came up a little short."

Cassell scored 18 points in 26 minutes Tuesday in Game 3 after playing only 43 seconds two nights earlier. Problem was, he was able to play only seven minutes in the second half, including one in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers pulled away for a 100-89 victory.

Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said Cassell wasn't moving around well in the team's shootaround earlier Thursday or before the game, so the decision was made to go with Darrick Martin in his place.

Cassell watched from the bench during the first half as the Lakers took a 45-40 lead.

After making jumper after jumper between halves, Cassell rode an exercise bike near the Minnesota bench before entering the game with 7:40 left in the third quarter and the Lakers leading 54-47.

Cassell made a 3-pointer six seconds later, and Minnesota would soon draw within two points. But with Kobe Bryant getting 16 points, the Lakers outscored the Timberwolves 19-6 to finish the third period for a 75-60 lead.

Game over, and if the past can be trusted, the Timberwolves will soon be history as well.

After his 3-pointer, Cassell misfired on three shots and was removed for good with 2:44 left in the third period and the Lakers leading 69-58.

"Guys get hurt, that's part of what this game is about," Saunders said.

When asked about Saturday night, Saunders replied: "My three favorite words I'm saying right now: 'Gametime decision.' "

Trenton Hassell, Minnesota's other starting guard, said he felt bad for Cassell.

"He got us to this point, we need him so much," Hassell said. "He's a big-time competitor. He gave us all he could for the few minutes he played.

"He's hurting -- you can see it in his face. He's a great player in situations like this. He's got two rings. That's why he's so important, because he's been there and done that. He's a winner."

The Timberwolves added Cassell and Latrell Sprewell this season to support MVP Kevin Garnett in their attempt to become championship contenders following seven years of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs -- most recently by the Lakers last spring.

It worked well. The Timberwolves won a franchise-record 58 games, most in the Western Conference, and, for the first time, advanced past the opening round by eliminating Denver.

Then they got past Sacramento to qualify for the conference finals.

Now, the Timberwolves will try to become the eighth team in NBA history to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-1.

Should they accomplish the feat, they'll upset even larger odds: Teams coached by the Lakers' Phil Jackson are 43-0 in series when they've led, and Jackson-coached teams are 9-0 in conference finals.

An 11-year veteran, Cassell averaged 19.8 points this season while sitting out just one game. His career average is 16.4 points.

"Our offense obviously isn't the same without him," reserve guard Fred Hoiberg said. "When we're forced to run a half-court game, we're kind of lost without a point guard."

Previously, Cassell played for the Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. He helped the Rockets win championships in 1994 and 1995, his first two NBA seasons.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press