Relitigating the 1994 NBA Finals: Game 4 — The Dream Shatterer

Abe Beame's coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals continues with an important wrinkle in the series.
By    April 15, 2020

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Abe Beame knows you ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.

There are many obvious reasons the Knicks weren’t able to overcome the Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals. The innovative genius of Rudy Tomjanovich, the brilliance of peak Hakeem Olajuwon, some historic cold nights from John Starks, a biblical curse. We Knicks fans have exhausted ourselves attacking the question from every angle. And even given all these factors, we still just barely lost. But one culprit you very rarely hear discussed is one of the Rocket’s least likely, and particularly at the time, unheralded young stars: rookie backup point guard, Samuel James Cassell Jr. 

When you contrast the Rockets lineup with the Knicks, they very nearly matched man for man, body for body. The skill sets in many cases were overlapping, with a probable edge to the Knicks in the front court with super-dynamic 1995 6th Man of the Year, Anthony Mason, either in for Oak and playing small and skilled against Robert Horry, Otis Thorpe and Carl Herrera — or clocking in for Charles Smith and bullying smaller men Mario Elie and Vernon Maxwell (Mase would even occasionally switch onto Olajuwon and play passable defense. He was an elite Swiss Army Knife).

Going into the series, it was the Knicks who appeared to have the edge at point. Despite Doc Rivers sitting out the season with a knee injury, Derek Harper had filled the role more than capably. A two-way threat with great instincts, Harper appeared to be the calming hand and missing link that had gotten the Knicks over the hump in the East and into the promised land. Coming off the bench to relieve Harper was Greg Anthony, a tenacious defender and distributor who could ably hold down the point 10-15 minutes a night as Harper rested. 

On the other side was starter Kenny Smith, an unexceptional 28 year old veteran on his third team. In this series, Smith did little but bring the ball across halfcourt. He was non-existent as a scoring threat and had several atrocious games. With a coach that subscribed to more conventional thinking, this would’ve been the story of the series, Harper would’ve simply washed Smith off the floor and with no answers, the Knicks would’ve won the championship. But in retrospect, I’m convinced Cassell ended up being the difference between winning and losing for both teams.

In his rookie year, it took time for Cassell to crack the lineup in a meaningful way (many coaches in college and the pros still meted out playing time based on seniority and time honored conventional wisdom bullshit), but by game 50 he was reliably splitting point duties equally with Kenny Smith. The Rockets brutal semifinal vs. the Suns was his coming out party. His +/- was up and down throughout the series (as it was against the Knicks in the Finals) but in the deciding Game 6 he went 8-12 for 22 points. Scoring point guards were still relatively novel. For every Kenny Anderson, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price or Rod Strickland there were two Haywood Workmens, Mugsy Bouges, Scott Skiles and Mark Jacksons whose main responsibilities were taking care of the ball and setting up the offense. This is what made the 24-year-old rookie out of Florida State, taken at #24 by the Rockets, such a revelation.

On the biggest stage, going up against an infamous squad of battle tested vets, Cassell was fearless. He hit the dagger in pivotal game 3 and went for 15, and in the series averaged an efficient 10 points. He was instant offense for the Rockets off the bench and his explosiveness and shooting were a constant problem for the Knicks. Whenever it seemed like a set was properly nailed down or a play had broken, it was Cassell that always seemed to have another idea leading to a stolen bucket, he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In a series where the margin was so incredibly small, it’s hard to imagine the Rockets had a prayer without his contributions.   

For a player with Cassell’s on-court abilities and locker room popularity, it’s hard to understand how he ended up playing for seven teams over the course of 14 seasons. He won three chips, and played for two teams, the 2001 Bucks and the 2004 Timberwolves, that should’ve made the Finals and could’ve won championships (The ‘04 Timberwolves arguably missed their shot because Cassell was injured in the Western Conference Finals vs. the Lakers and didn’t dress for the last two games). I hate superlatives like “winner”, but the gangly, objectively ugly, shit-talking savant from Florida State was unquestionably a winner. It’s simply unfortunate for me, as well as a generation of heartbroken Knicks fans, that he chose this fateful moment in 1994 to announce that to the world.

Part 1

0:05: We got this one broken up into multiple parts, which I actually prefer because I imagine it helps you keep track with me if you’re following along at home minute to minute.

0:39: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Patrick was too strong for Hakeem and we didn’t do enough to take advantage of that.

0:48: Rudy T looks like the franchise manager of an unsuccessful White Castle.

1:37: Knicks in transition were the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King.

2:31: I managed to find a copy of the infamous memos the league would issue to the refs before each game for this particular evening. Here’s a transcription:

  1. Call more Illegal Defense
  2. Call more Illegal Defense
  3. Call more Illegal Defense
  4. Make sure the Knicks don’t win this series

Sincerely Yours,
Dave

3:15: The Knicks fronting and denying the inlet was a vicious strategy that generally worked.

3:45: Blatant makeup call. 

4:10: Kenny is talking shit to Derek Harper. Here’s an animated recap for anyone at home who is just reading through this and not watching: 

4:35: The ending of Game 3 just popped into my head for no reason and I’m still so fucking angry.

4:59: Oak’s J in this series was butter; specifically, butter kept in one of those lidded French butter dishes at room temp.

4:59: I realize so far in this game I’ve written exclusively about the Knicks and that’s because thus far this game has exclusively been the Knicks.

5:23: Guokas just called the 20-footer Oak pulled up and hit “Aagood shot” and somewhere, 22-year-old Northwestern student, Daryl Morey, suffered a minor aneurysm. 

6:37: It’s incredible how reliably they were able to get that lob into Hakeem despite the team effort to ball deny. They had to thread the needle each and every time.

8:21: Kenny Smith on Derek Harper brings to mind that Big Daddy Kane punchline when he says “You’re just a butter knife, I’m a machete.”

8:30: On cue, Cassell is in.

8:54: Marvelous just gave me the title for the autobiography I’m going to write about my childhood. Check for “Charles Smith with the good move, but could not put it down” this fall wherever fine books are sold.

9:28: Kenny Smith on the bench looking like he got hit by a bus. Whenever he tries to talk shit to Charles Barkley about having a ring Charles should just pull up these videos and show highlights to the studio crew at TNT. Maybe the lowest impact every game starter in the history of the NBA Finals.

9:42: Knicks are serious not fucking around right now.

Part 2

0:41: Early looks for Mase and Bonner already paying dividends.

1:08: The whole squad is taking this shit personally.

1:48: Joey Crawford just called a tech on Harper which I have to imagine is the first and only rech of Harper’s career and so perfect that Crawford called it.

2:04: Kind of surprised they sent Horry to the line to shoot the tech. He was the best FT shooter on the floor?

2:29: Fucking Cassell. Smoked a 3 on what looked like it was going to be another blown posession.

3:33: Don’t want to put the tin foil hat on but you can feel the calls starting to shift against the Knicks. Lot of off-ball ticky tack shit that’s taking away posessions at weird times.

5:30: My God. Patrick. Go to this time stamp and watch if you want to see a 7-foot Jamaican ballerina playing basketball.

6:24: The Knicks nearly just held the Rockets to the all-time lowest scoring quarter in the history of the NBA Finals and I’m pretty mad it didn’t happen. Who got them to 12? Cassell with a filthy foul line pull up.

7:28: The Knicks were up 17-2 at one point before the refs helped drag the Rockets back into the game. Still, this was the best quarter of the series for the Knicks.

Part 3

0:04: Celebrity Row: Jerry Seinfeld, Cindy Crawford, Madonna in a Starks jersey, Mark Messier coming off the NHL Finals victory in the building the night before, we’ve achieved apex 90s Garden, people.

0:47: The Rangers ended a drought of 54 years in 1994 bringing a Stanley Cup back to the city. In 2027, it will be 54 years since the Knicks’ last title. If we manage to make the playoffs by 2027 I will be fucking shocked and so happy I’ll soil myself.

1:23: I want the Knicks to draft Cole Anthony almost exclusively because he’s Greg Anthony’s son. 

1:35: I said this in the intro but it’s worth repeating: Absolutely incredible the Knicks were able to get away with Mase bodying Olajuown for stretches without getting torched. Mase was a true unicorn.

2:16: Herrera in for Thorpe and Elie for Maxwell. Rockets generally stayed big against the Knicks. Would’ve been interesting to see more of the small ball looks from Houston.

2:39: GREG ANTHONY HAD THE HEART OF A CHAMPION.

3:30: A dramatic recreation of the block Ewing just threw on Herrera: 

3:38: Yet another Cassell bailout as the shot clock expired with GA draped all over him. 

3:54: Cassell fights and wins a tough long rebound in traffic.

4:50: You gotta love it. They pulled Cassell aside for an interview after practice the day before: “I don’t feel any pressure because my job is not that hard.” Basically says the entire offense belongs to Hakeem and he’s just a lowly custodian. So torn between resentment and respect right now.

5:33: GA MAKES LOVE TO PRESSURE.

Part 4

1:11: Bullard sighting. This guy was so washed.

1:45: It’s a tragedy that so few people remember this guy. HIS NAME WAS DEREK HARPER.

2:18: The Mase transition outlets were filthy.

2:56: Mase currently playing the 5.

3:10: Mase had real estate:

4:12: Probably getting boring for you to read but I’m contractually obligated to mention HARPER AGAIN. Would’ve been so interesting to see Harper playing a more modern game where he was looking more for his shot but I suppose it just wasn’t his style.

4:59: Watching this makes it hard to understand how we ever dropped a game to these punks.

Part 5

0:30: It’s 32-21 with less than five minutes to play in the first half of an NBA Finals game.

1:09: Rockets just had one of their few well executed half court sets of this game. Knicks defense was so disruptive when they were clicking on nights like these.

2:47: 😢

3:49: Oak dialed in.

4:33: I think in my entire life as a Knicks fan I’ve never seen them hit that one perfect go ahead kill shot that would blow the roof off the arena. 

4:59: Otis Thorpe out here making us look slow and lazy.

5:31: I love how this Knicks team would just go at each other when they were frustrated on the floor. For many teams, especially in this optics and social obsessed moment, it would be impossible and read as toxic chemistry but for this team it was brothers hashing shit out on the fly.

5:45: My favorite Patrick response to success is him being hurt and indignant that anyone would try to guard him/try to put up a shot on him.

6:12: Houston has 33 points heading into the half and Guokas just said: “Scoring barrage from the Rockets the last four minutes.” 

6:44: Currently developing a one man play titled: The Tenacity of Charles Oakley.

Part 6

0:27: Kind of a bummer. This version cuts out the halftime show, which if you’ve been following this series, let me start by apologizing and checking in to make sure you’re ok, and also, I enjoy watching halftime because it gives you a good snapshot of the league in this moment in time. So if any future television producers are reading this, when you televise your time capsule games in the future, please include as much sideline ephemera, studio segments, historically accurate television commercials, any and everything that helps paint the moment on and off the court is appreciated and adds to the nostalgic viewing experience.

0:57: Otis Thorpe is Bizarro Oakley in a parallel universe devoid of charisma, alpha shit talk and surprisingly silky 18 foot jumpers.  

1:35: Starks just drew an offensive foul on Horry by flopping on a screen and that is officially the only time flopping is cool gamesmanship and not at all pussy.

2:44: Rudy T looks like he borrowed David Byrne’s suit.

3:52: Otis Thorpe plays basketball like an electrician.

5:17: Cassell ended up being my favorite player from this Rocket squad but some days it’s Mad Max.

6:26: Oak and Maxwell are exchanging elbow nudges and little comments. I would literally do anything for an hour long podcast of just those two talking about this series.

6:51: You know who looks like they hated every second of this entire series? Hakeem Olajuwon. A true team defense masterpiece for the Knicks faced with a fucking quagmire.

7:32: When Otis Thorpe’s first child was born he solemnly pumped his fist and high fived all the doctors and nurses in the delivery room.

8:53: Pat Riley has murdered at least one person in his life.

Part 7

0:54: Wait what why is this clip only 54 seconds

Part 8

0:31: As is the case with nearly every player in the history of basketball, when Starks is in fuck you mode and relentlessly attacking the basket rather than pulling up over and over again good things happen. 

2:14: Ironic that this is Patrick’s worst game of the series.

2:59: Hakeem basically just hit a no look jumper

3:30: Mase and Oak just tried to murder Horry. I’m not entirely certain flagrant fouls existed in 1994.

4:01: Whoops they just called one on Mase and he’s stunned and upset lmaooooo.

5:08: ILLEGAL DEFENSE.

6:22: Max is playing with what sounds like a fractured wrist or badly fucked up hand and Horry stayed out on the court after that hard foul, hobbling around. Can’t say these guys weren’t tough. 

7:47: An interesting “What if” is what happens if Doc never got injured. We probably never get Harper so who knows if we could’ve made it out of the Chicago series but if we had somehow had them both………

8:18: Rockets have been dominant, on a 14-1 run and we’ve gone ice cold, as the 90s Knicks are wont to do.

8:36: Hannah Storm fit check: sadly, pretty unremarkable. 

9:16: It’s hard to pick up on the audio but I can read lips and Starks just bodied Maxwell then shouted “RIVERSIDE MOTHERFUCKER!”, in his face.

9:49: DEREK HARPER WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE.

Part 9

0:00: No idea what the process of making and uploading one of these videos entails but the lengths are so random and bizarre.

1:31: Cassell just made a free throw and held his follow through a hilarious and unnecessarily long time. He was such a pest.

1:46: Brb imagining a world where Derek Ricardo Harper could’ve been Steph Curry. He went 5-10 from 3 in this game. Also, his middle name is Ricardo????

2:25: Guokas just referred to the Harper 3 as coming off “Rhythmical offensive play” and I was considering writing it up and then Marvelous came in and said “Rhythmical…….. Offensive play” and totally roasted him and I started laughing. Man, Marv was a legend.

Part 10

0:15: Another 4th quarter in the Finals for Hakeem. Be interesting to see if he breaks down again.

1:09: Charles Smith out here dropping dimes. What a maddening player.

2:13: The Knicks were not remotely afraid or intimidated by Hakeem.

3:42: Carl Herrera looks like one those dumb ass talking thumb videos on Youtube.

4:44: Like every other team in the NBA, the Rockets did not like Anthony Mason.

4:58: Harper casually drilling an off the bounce quick release 3 from the top of the arc. 

5:28: Cassell playing down the stretch over Kenny. Why did Kenny play at all? 

5:46: Hakeem is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Dude had an edge.

6:12: I wonder if Patrick ever missed that baseline 12 footer? He loved that spot.

6:31: Knicks just choked out the Rockets offense and forced a shot clock violation. Couldn’t even get a shot off. 

Part 11

0:33: Through the fourth quarter of this game Patrick has shot 0 free throws, and also had 0 free throws in game 3. That is a pretty jarring indictment.

2:00: Just taking a moment to remind you Robert Horry has seven rings.

3:57: You can tell when Otis Thorpe is really mad because he puts his hands on his hips and shows no visible emotion whatsoever.

4:00: Shout to Hubert Davis’ barber in 1994. He always had a fresh line. Remember when barber was a profession?

Part 12

0:20: Hubert Davis was struggling and leading up to the game there was speculation in New York that Rolando Blackman would play. He never got into a game in the Finals, including Starks’ historically bad Game 7. Riley loved playing tight playoff rotations, but has since called playing Starks 48 minutes in that game over Blackman, “The worst mistake of my career”. 

3:44: Ewing just disrupted penetration because the front is really fucking up the spacing on the floor (OH GROW UP). Would love to see Steve Kerr come in and coach either side of this game. 

4:36: Rudy T has me Googling if Filene’s Basement existed in 1994. 

5:17: Another play broken up by a Ewing front. 20th turnover by the Rockets.

5:46: Matt Bullard was an innovator. Feel like 94 was super early for frosted tips.

Part 13

0:22: Marvelous and Guokas are talking about how “smart” and “unique” Bullard’s perspective is because he was a journalism major at Iowa. Very cringe.

1:13: Ewing about to take his first free throws of the game.

1:14: Rudy T looks like he was frozen in ice thousands of years ago and discovered in a suburban Houston backyard by a teenager digging to build an in ground pool. 

1:28: I feel like if Oak or Mase were playing now with their intellect and skill on both sides of the ball we’d discuss them with the same reverence we save for Draymond Green. 

1:51: On cue Oak makes an incredibly prescient, heads up, brilliant effort play to save a possession, set up a three for Starks and go a long way towards sealing a Finals game. He was a championship caliber piece.

3:38: My God. Current stat line for Oak, 16 points, 19 rebounds, 9 OF THEM OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS. The all time Finals record was 11. I feel like being Jordan’s lackey for 20 years, the cooking show, the gambling stories, the fighting stories and the Dolan beef have overshadowed what an incredible player he was.

3:48: You can tell when Otis Thorpe is upset by his non descrip body language and neutral facial expression.

4:20: Knicks have taken the wheel. Slowly closing the door on this one.

5:13: Houston just deconstructed the front pretty effectively with a backdoor cut from Herrera who caught it at the rim and finished before Ewing could get over. Kind of hard to understand why they didn’t just do this every time down the floor.

5:54: Starks had it going.

Part 14

1:22: Knicks owned the boards.

3:11: Ewing is fouled out. Played great defense on Hakeem the entire game, testament to Hakeem’s incredible talent.

3:15: Here’s a little bonus as Pat heads into the sunset, a completely random Big Pun commemorative Ewing sneaker and a reminder that if Big Pun is not in your top 5 your top 5 is wrong.

Part 15

0:44: Let the record show the Knicks ultimately won this do or die Finals game because of great defense AND, down the stretch, Starks. He was attacking the rim when nothing else was falling and hit a few huge shots. 

3:40: “Pat Riley has his heart in his throat because he has no idea where Starks might be going” Should be the title of a forthcoming book about the 90s Knicks.

4:33: Ewing just threw his sweaty towel to Mutombo in the stands. Thanks?

5:36: Jeff Van Gundy sighting. He has a stunning amount of hair, which for JVG means he is aggressively balding.

Ewing v. Olajuwon Watch: Patrick: 16 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block. Hakeem: 32 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 blocks.

This is the first matchup that wasn’t remotely close. Ewing’s stat line was even worse than it looked when you consider he went 8-28, got to the line once and fouled out down the stretch of a must win game. It’s somewhat surprising the Knicks were even able to pull this game out. On the other end, Hakeem finally came out in a fourth quarter. He was dominant and the sole reason the Rockets were able to claw back into a game they fell far behind early in and for a moment, had a real shot at winning.

Final Thoughts: It wasn’t pretty, but through four games the Knicks sure look like the better team. The big three of Oak, Mase and Patrick are choking the life out of what was a vibrant Houston offense and setting the play on their terms. Even when Hakeem fills up the stat sheet, he looks miserable. Now the series is even again and we’re staying in New York for game 5, we won with Patrick suffering an off night, John Starks is beginning to resemble an actual professional basketball player, WE’RE BACK BABY! What could possibly go wrong? 

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