"I thought he was joking," Smith said after Game 2. "Turns out he was dead serious." Cassell kept Smith on the bench almost the entire second half of Houston's victory by serving as the Orlando rally-killer. Every time the Magic threatened to cut significantly into the Rockets' double-digit lead, Cassell was there with an open-court foray to the basket or a fallaway jumper as the shot clock expired to steal the roar from the Orlando crowd.
Cassell is a brash, talkative 25-year-old who plays with a childlike enthusiasm—after hitting a jumper in Game 2, he turned and actually skipped for several steps downcourt—but handles pressure games like a hardened veteran. "I love the playoffs because they're the money games, they're where you make your name," he says. "You don't have to be 35 years old to figure that out."
The Rockets love Cassell's youthful energy, but his teammates do sometimes wish he would tone it down a notch off the court. "Sam's always talking, always," says Smith. "It doesn't matter if it's five in the morning or five in the afternoon. He's the loud guy you don't want to sit next to on the team bus, the guy who makes you put your headphones on and pretend you're sleeping."
But by the end of Game 3, Cassell wasn't the only one who had a lot to say. All of Houston was talking about the Rockets, and the whole country should have been listening. The Rockets were preparing to take their place in that elite category of champions, the repeat winners. But the one thing they could not do was surprise us anymore, because we knew better. The next time they play an important game, a game they absolutely must have, disregard the matchups, forget about the home court advantage. Just expect the Rockets to win, because that's what they do.