SAM'S CLUB

Times Staff Writer

Sam Cassell is still doing his thing after all these years, making big shots and helping another team reach new heights.

The Clippers, off to their best start in 30 years, are the latest to benefit from the point guard's take-charge attitude, and Cassell might be only getting started.

A bad breakup with the Minnesota Timberwolves behind him, Cassell, 36, says he's having a blast in his 13th NBA season, bringing his swagger and fourth-quarter heroics to a talented group that needed a closer.

The Clippers, second in the Western Conference's Pacific Division, are among the NBA's elite for the first time; Cassell loves L.A. and says he hopes to join the coaching staff when he's finished playing. That will depend, in part, on whether Cassell, who can become a free agent after the season, can get the contract extension he wants.

For now, the Clippers are enjoying a wild ride in uncharted waters, and they're eager to see where Cassell leads them next.

"We've never been in this position before; we're changing a lot of people's minds about what the Clippers are about, and no doubt, Sam is a big, big part of that," power forward Elton Brand said.

"A lot of guys are contributing and helping this team ... but that veteran leadership that Sam brings ... he's helped us win some of those close games that we might not have won in the past. Well, that and all those big shots."

With Cassell averaging 17.8 points and a team-leading 6.6 assists, the Clippers have the fifth-best record in the NBA at 30-19, their best mark through 49 games since the 1975-76 season, when they were the Buffalo Braves. And they are 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer; they were 4-13 in those games last season.

"When the game's on the line, Sam just has a knack for taking over whenever we need him to," center Chris Kaman said.

"It's just unlike anything I've ever seen."

Cassell has delivered plenty of late-game highlight-tape performances already, and his best work has occurred away from Staples Center:

* He had 35 points, 15 in the final quarter, and 11 assists on opening night as the Clippers overcame a 13-point deficit in a 101-93 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics.

* He made a 17-foot jump shot with 30.8 seconds left to secure a 100-94 victory over Portland at the Rose Garden.

* He made three consecutive three-point shots in a 15-2 fourth-quarter spurt, helping the Clippers pull away and win, 98-81, at Boston.

* He scored 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, including the game's final two points on free throws with less than a second to play, as the Clippers overcame a 19-point deficit and defeated the Golden State Warriors, 96-93.

* At Toronto, he made a three-pointer with 5.5 seconds left in regulation to extend play, and scored 14 of his 27 points in the final 4:32 of the fourth quarter and in overtime in a 115-113 win.

* He silenced a raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden with consecutive three-point baskets in the last two minutes to lead the Clippers from a one-point deficit to a five-point lead in an 85-82 win over the New York Knicks.

The last three on the list came on a recent 4-2 trip -- the second-best trip in franchise history -- prompting teammates to nickname Cassell "Big Game."

He has always been accustomed to having the ball in his hands at the end of games, from the time he was at Dunbar High in Baltimore to his first two years in the NBA when he won championships with the Houston Rockets.

"Man, this is what I do," Cassell said. "I told the team in training camp that Elton is our horse, we're going to ride the horse as far as he's going to take us, but that I could help Elton if they just let me do what I do. You can't lead guys if they don't want to be led, but they let me go out there and do it."

General Manager Elgin Baylor had watched Cassell lead teams and torment opponents, including the Clippers, with timely shots since Baylor scouted him at Florida State. Some guys play it cool in tense times, Baylor said, and Cassell is among the coolest.

"You talk about guys who want to take that big shot, who can make that big shot, and Cassell is one of those guys," said Baylor, who pushed for the trade that brought Cassell from Minnesota in August.

"You talk about guys having ice water in their veins ... the pressure just doesn't bother him. I've seen him do it to us so many times. I figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

The Clippers say Cassell's influence carries far beyond his performance as a player.

A co-captain with Brand, Cassell has set the tone, encouraging and admonishing teammates while pushing Coach Mike Dunleavy's agenda.

Cassell was assessed a technical foul, which was quickly rescinded, because an official mistakenly thought he was the target of Cassell's sharp criticism, which was directed at backup forward-center Chris Wilcox.

After Kaman grabbed 19 rebounds in a victory over Cleveland, Cassell gave him a bearhug on the court as teammates looked on smiling.

"I play off my emotions, so when I get off the bench and yell at one of my teammates for not having that effort, they know it's all about love," Cassell said. "If you look from the outside, you'll say, 'Man, Cassell just stays on his guys.' But I'm the captain and that's my job.

"Mike doesn't talk to our team about paying hard. He talks to me, so I have to relay it to my guys. I get on my guys because we have a chance to be special. If they didn't believe it, it's my job to make them believe it."

Veteran swingman Cuttino Mobley, who signed with the Clippers as a free agent in July, is Cassell's closest friend on the team. "Sam says stuff to me too," he said. "He's got two rings, so I listen."

Cassell has provided more than Dunleavy expected.

"He is exactly who I thought he was as a player," Dunleavy said. "But he's better in a leadership capacity than I knew."

Kenny Smith could have told him.

Smith, an NBA analyst for TNT, and Cassell, a first-round draft pick of the Rockets in 1993, were teammates on Houston's NBA title teams in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.

"You always heard him before you saw him, so that's still the same," Smith said. "He was so enthusiastic about being in the league and being a part of everything, he was always fun, he was one of the most fun guys I've ever played with and one of my best teammates ever.

"But one of the things I always respected about him, especially with me because I was a point guard and he was a point guard, is that he would always pick my brain. He's a basketball junkie, he was always looking to get better, and he was always looking to win. The way he is now is the same way he was at 25."

Cassell, who had hip surgery in June 2004, was slowed by a hamstring injury last season and played in a career-low 59 games. His scoring average dropped from 19.8 points in the 2003-04 season, when he was a second-team All-NBA selection, to 13.5 points -- his least productive season in a decade.

Cassell spent the summer with John Lucas, a former NBA player and coach, in Houston to prepare for the season.

"It's the hardest Sam has worked in the summer," Lucas said. "He worked twice a day for four months. He took 100 shots a day, three hours a day, five days a week. Sam can play three more years. No doubt."

Smith agreed.

"His game is an old-fashioned Baltimore park game," Smith said. "It's an in-between game, you feel where you are and bump and shoot, it's never been about speed and athleticism with Sam, so he can play the same way at 46 that he's playing at 36."

The Timberwolves had doubts.

Although Cassell had helped Minnesota reach the Western Conference finals for the first time in 2004, management decided to trade Cassell because of his outspokenness in his bid for an extension, his steep decline in production and his age (he turned 36 on Nov. 18).

The Clippers sent guards Marko Jaric, who received a $37.875-million contract in the sign-and-trade deal, and the seldom-used Lionel Chalmers to the Timberwolves on Aug. 12 for Cassell and a lottery-protected first-round pick in this year's draft.

In addition to his production and leadership, Cassell, a career 45.7% field-goal shooter, is making 44.3% of his shots from the field, 42.4% from beyond the three-point arc and 86.3% at the free-throw line.

Jaric recently lost his job as the Timberwolves' starting point guard. He's averaging 9.3 points, 4.8 assists and shooting 41.5% from the field.

"Like I've said, I wouldn't trade Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell," Cassell said. "It's nothing against Marko Jaric, but I know what I bring. I just wouldn't make that trade."

Apparently, neither would Flip Saunders.

Saunders, who now coaches the Detroit Pistons, coached Cassell in Minnesota. He expected Cassell to rebound this season.

"When everything was going bad last year and everyone was talking, I said Sam wasn't healthy," Saunders said. "He had hip surgery, he had not done anything during the summer prior to a week before training camp, and he usually played five days a week in the summertime.

"It usually takes about a year to really come back when a guy has that type of surgery. I said last year that Sam will come back and have a great year this year, which he has, and it doesn't surprise me.

"He's doing for them and Brand what he did for Minnesota and [Kevin] Garnett. He's got Brand playing at an MVP level, because Brand has got confidence in the guy who's got the ball."

Brand was selected last week as a Western Conference reserve for the All-Star game. According to New Jersey's Jason Kidd, Cassell belongs on the team too.

"I know Brand is playing at a high level, but Sam helped that team become stable," Kidd said. "That is what you need in this league when somebody has the ball. You've got to have somebody who is stable, somebody you can count on."

Cassell is making more than $6.1 million in the final year of his contract. He says he wants to finish his playing career as a Clipper, become a coach and work under Dunleavy.

If Cassell continues to play well and the team qualifies for the playoffs, officials would encourage owner Donald T. Sterling to re-sign Cassell, Clipper sources said. But Sterling would make the decision.

"I want to be here, I know what I've done for this team and will do for this team, but it's not up to me," Cassell said. "People are so ecstatic about what we're doing, I'm getting so much love wherever I go from Clipper fans, and we can keep this going for a long time. There's just something special happening here, I believe that."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Point men

Sam Cassell is averaging 17.8 points and 6.6 assists through 48 games this season. How his numbers compare with those of previous Clipper point guards dating to the 1995-96 season, the last time the Clippers made the playoffs (minimum 50 games):

*--* PLAYER, SEASONS G PPG AST Pooh Richardson 1995-96 63 11.7 5.4 Darrick Martin 1996-97 82 10.9 4.1 1997-98 82 10.3 4.0 Troy Hudson 1999-2000 62 8.8 3.9 Jeff McInnis 2000-01 81 12.9 5.5 2001-02 81 14.6 6.2 Earl Boykins 2001-02 68 4.1 2.1 Keyon Dooling 2000-01 76 5.9 2.3 2002-03 55 6.4 1.6 2003-04 58 6.2 2.2 Andre Miller 2002-03 80 13.6 6.7 Marko Jaric 2002-03 66 7.4 2.9 2003-04 58 8.5 4.8 2004-05 50 9.9 6.1

*--*

Source: basketball-reference.com

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Cassell factor

Sam Cassell helped Kevin Garnett win the MVP award in 2003-04 with Minnesota. This season, the Clippers' Elton Brand is having his best season with Cassell at the point:

ELTON BRAND

2005-06 (47 games)

* Points per game...25.7

* Rebounds...10.4

* Assists...2.7

* Field-goal percentage...53.1

* Free-throw percentage...78.7

* Steals...0.9

* Blocked shots...2.6

KEVIN GARNETT

2003-04 (82 games)

* Points per game...24.2

* Rebounds...13.9

* Assists...5.0

* Field-goal percentage...49.9

* Free-throw percentage...79.1

* Steals...1.5

* Blocked shots...2.2

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