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New Cast At Crunch Time Every second-round matchup includes at least one breakthrough team. Here are four players--one from each series--who are taking their games to the big stage


When Doug Christie was a Lakers rookie, in 1992, Jerry West, the
team's general manager at the time, took him aside. "He said that
if I was willing to work at it, I could do some very important
things with my defense for the Lakers," Christie says. Nine years
later the 6'6" Christie, now the Kings' shooting guard, is trying
to do some very important things with his defense to the Lakers.
His job in Sacramento's second-round playoff series against L.A.
is to shadow Kobe Bryant--a typical assignment for Christie, who
routinely draws the opponents' top perimeter scorer and has
handled that duty so well that he was named to the NBA's
All-Defensive second team.

Christie's defense was essential to the Kings' first-round
elimination of the Suns in four games. He helped limit Phoenix
point guard Jason Kidd to 14.3 points on 31.9% shooting and made
two crucial defensive plays, blocking a Kidd layup in the final
minutes of Game 3 and stealing a pass and going in for the dunk
that sealed Game 4. Christie's regular-season average of 2.26
steals was third best in the league. "He's been great all year
locking up point guards, big guards, small forwards," Sacramento
forward Chris Webber said before Game 1 in Los Angeles. "If he
can make Kobe work hard for whatever he gets, we'll be all

It didn't quite turn out that way on Sunday. Christie did a good
job on the 6'7" Bryant in the first half, when he harassed Bryant
into 3-of-11 shooting, but Kobe broke free for 17 points in the
third quarter, and the Lakers, behind Shaquille O'Neal's 44
points, eked out a 108-105 win. "Doug's All-Defense for a
reason," said Bryant, who finished with 29 points on 10-of-23
shooting. "He's got long arms, and he knows how to use them."

One key to Christie's defensive work is his ability to contest
shots. He rarely goes for the block, preferring to put his hand
as close to the shooter's eyes as he can. On several of Bryant's
fadeaway jumpers on Sunday, Christie looked as if he was trying
to place his outstretched fingers on Kobe's corneas. When he
couldn't get close enough to do that, he came up with other
creative ways of distracting the Lakers' guard. On Bryant's first
shot of the game, Christie clapped his hands on the release, and
Bryant shot an air ball. "You do whatever you can to make it as
hard on him as possible," Christie says. --P.T.


What with the risk of pulling a muscle while removing one's
warmups, it can be argued that playing only the last 4.5 seconds
of a three-game playoff series is worse than not playing at all.
Alvin Williams knows that all too well. Last season he rode the
pine for the first 143 minutes and 55.5 seconds of the Knicks'
first-round sweep of the Raptors before Toronto coach Butch
Carter saw fit to let him play. Williams's short stint could
hardly be called mop-up time, because he barely had time to get
his mop wet. It was, however, a fitting end to a season in which
he was made to feel unwanted in two countries. The Raptors had
traded him to the Celtics for forward Danny Fortson on Feb. 9,
but Boston got skittish the next day and nixed the deal, claiming
Williams had a bad knee--despite the fact that he'd missed only
one game due to injury all year, because of a sprained ankle.

Carter was fired after the season, and when former Hawks coach
Lenny Wilkens interviewed for the job with Toronto general
manager Glen Grunwald, the man who had made a name for himself as
a gritty guard had an interesting message for his future boss. "I
saw Alvin play in college [at Villanova], and I thought, This kid
is tough," says Wilkens. "When Glen and I talked, I said, 'I'm
interested [in the job], but we're keeping Alvin.'" Grunwald said
fine, and when Wilkens signed on, the first player he called was

Wilkens used the 6'5" Williams extensively at both guard spots
throughout the regular season, and the fourth-year man excelled.
He averaged 9.8 points, his assists-to-turnovers ratio was nearly
four to one, and he had 20 more steals than turnovers. Williams's
postseason play has been even better: He scored 15 or more points
in five of Toronto's first six playoff games, and the Philly
native hounded his summer workout partner, Allen Iverson, into
11-for-34 shooting in a 96-93 defeat of the 76ers on Sunday in
Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Williams, 26, has improved his shooting touch since last season,
but for the most part his ascent is due to one thing: the
guidance of Wilkens. "He's showed me a lot of little things,"
Williams says. "How to let the game come to me, how to be
patient, how to feed off of other players, when to attack, when
not to attack. But the biggest thing was just giving me the
opportunity to play."

"I think everyone is glad that trade [for Fortson] fell through,"
says Grunwald. "Except Boston." --Mark Bechtel


By this point in the season, Milwaukee coach George Karl and
point guard Sam Cassell both knew the drill. On Sunday morning,
an hour before the opening game of his team's second-round
playoff series, Karl sidled over to Cassell's locker and said,
"Sammy, how are we doing today?"

"We're cool," Cassell mumbled.

"No. Look me in the eye," Karl said sternly. "How are we doing

Cassell sheepishly looked up, widened his eyes, which usually
squint as if blinded by sunshine, and met Karl's gaze. "It's all
good, Coach. All good."

This dialogue has become a ritual between the two for a simple
reason, claims Cassell. "George comes over because he's a nervous
wreck before games, and he tries to feed off of my being cool."

Karl's explanation? "I just like to get a read on Sam and make
sure he's focused," says the coach. "As he goes, so goes this

Cassell is indeed the Bucks' fulcrum, especially in the playoffs.
While Milwaukee is in its first conference semifinals since 1989,
Cassell was inoculated against postseason stage fright long ago.
In his first two seasons in the league, his clutch shooting
helped the Houston Rockets win back-to-back titles in the 1994
and '95 playoffs. Appearing in his 68th playoff game on Sunday,
he steadied the nervous Bucks by scoring 10 points in the first
six minutes and finished with 20 points and four assists in a
104-92 victory over the Charlotte Hornets before a raucous,
Lambeau-like crowd at the sold-out Bradley Center. "These are the
playoffs," says the 31-year-old Cassell, "and you have to bring
your best stuff."

Despite consistently doing just that, Cassell, now with his fifth
team, still finds fame hard to come by. His clashes with coach
John Calipari while playing for the struggling Nets in the late
'90s earned him a reputation as a hothead, and that perception
continues to haunt him. Though his averages this season (18.2
points a game, 7.6 assists) are comparable to the league's
premier point guards, he is rarely ranked among the top
playmakers. "I feel," says Cassell, "as if I'm the New Age Rod
Strickland, a guy who gets it done and still can't get respect."

However, his more immediate concern is winning his third ring.
With Milwaukee clicking in the playoffs and having gone 8-0 in
the regular season against the four best teams in the West, he
likes the Bucks' chances. Says Cassell, "You tell me, 'Why not
us?'" --L. Jon Wertheim


During the Bulls' glory years, Mavericks swingman Michael Finley
would return to his native Chicago and try to put himself in
Michael Jordan's shoes. Before last month Finley had played six
NBA seasons and never made a playoff appearance. "It's a new
experience for me, but I'm a student of the game," he said last
Friday night after arriving in San Antonio for Game 1 of the
Western Conference semifinals. "I've seen the level of intensity
it takes to win these types of games. I've been around guys like
Michael and Scottie Pippen, and I would go down and see [fellow
Chicagoan] Tim Hardaway play in those Miami-New York series."

Seeing has led to believing. The 28-year-old Finley played 229 of
240 minutes in the first round against the Jazz and was still
fresh in the second half of Game 5, finishing with a game-high 33
points to help Dallas overcome Utah's 14-point fourth-quarter
lead. With the Mavs behind 83-82 in the waning moments, Finley
took the ball in the high post, drew a double team, glanced over
his shoulder and passed to second-year center Calvin Booth on the
baseline. Booth laid in the game-winner with 9.6 seconds left,
and Dallas won a series in which it had trailed two games to

Given the circumstances of his arrival in Dallas, Finley is an
apt leader for a come-from-behind team. He has been perceived as
part of a trade deficit since December 1996, when the Mavs
acquired him from the Suns for All-Star point guard Jason Kidd in
a six-player deal. "Michael has always had to prove his critics
wrong, but I look around this locker room, and I see a lot of
guys who have been called underachievers or castoffs," says
assistant coach Donnie Nelson. "It's like the Island of Misfit
Toys around here."

A two-time All-Star, the 6'7" Finley has averaged at least 20
points in each of the past four years, and he led the league in
minutes the past two seasons. His teammates called him the
Silencer after he quieted Jazz fans with his three-pointers,
transition baskets and off-balance turnaround jumpers. It was
Finley and his teammates who were muted, however, in a 94-78 loss
to the Spurs last Saturday in Game 1 of the semis. Finley spent
the fourth quarter on the bench after scoring 17 points. "I
wanted to go back in," he says, "but the coaches said they want
me to rest my legs."

That rest didn't help on Monday night, when Finley scored 24
points, but hit only 8 of 24 shots as the Mavericks dropped Game
2, 100-86. After years of studying others' playoff performances,
he finally has a chance to have experiences of his own to learn
from. --Ian Thomsen