But after he outshined those stars the first two rounds of the playoffs, the league is taking notice that Capela is one of the pivotal pieces to Houston’s success as the team prepares for its showdown with Golden State in the Western Conference finals starting Monday.
“What he does is as good or better than anybody in the league without a doubt,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Capela leads the NBA this postseason in blocks (2.8 a game) and offensive rebounds (4.1 per contest). He’s fourth with 12.2 rebounds a game overall and his 14.4 point average in the playoffs ranks third on the Rockets behind James Harden and Chris Paul. This came after a regular season where the fourth-year player posted career highs in virtually every statistical category. He averaged 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in helping the Rockets to 65 wins and their first No. 1 seed in franchise history.
“What he does has been unbelievable,” D’Antoni said. “And he’ll be overlooked. They’ll say he’s a role player and it’s not true.”
The Rockets insist that their high-powered, three-point centered offense wouldn’t work the way it does without the 6-foot-10 Capela. His work as the finisher in Houston’s pick and roll has proven valuable in the playoffs so far. His prowess in that area was on full display in Houston’s Game 5 win that eliminated the Timberwolves in the first round. He shot 12 of 14 and finished with a game-high 26 points to help Houston to the 122-104 victory.
Harden has often said this season that Capela is the player that makes everything else work for the Rockets, and said Friday that he’s undoubtedly developed into one of the league’s best centers.
“For sure,” Harden said. “He’s done it for the last few years and he’s definitely showing it now in the postseason. You’ve got guys that just are comfortable with being in the NBA and you’ve got guys that actually want to have a legacy and Clint’s one of those guys.”
To that end Capela is constantly trying to learn and add new wrinkles to his game. He was always picking the brain of eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard when he backed him up in his first two NBA seasons and he’s developed a close relationship with former Rockets star and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. Capela can often be seen working with and talking to Olajuwon at practice and Capela said Olajuwon has been impressed with the 23-year-old’s progress.
“He just said I was great and playing with confidence and energy and to keep it up,” Capela said.
While the Capela sees Olajuwon as one of his top mentors, he also appreciates a particular skill of another former Rocket. There are times after Capela blocks a shot that he wags one of his long fingers in the air as Dikembe Mutombo often did during his more than decade-long career in the NBA.
“Just having fun and also sending a message that it’s still my paint,” Capela said with a laugh.
Capela has had at least one block in each of Houston’s playoff games this season and tied a career-best with six in Game 4 against the Jazz. Most impressive about that performance is that five of those blocks came in the last three minutes to help Houston secure the road victory.
He said that shot-blocking barrage was the product of his getting upset after receiving a rare technical earlier in the fourth quarter when he got tangled up with Donovan Mitchell and the two did a little jawing at each other.
“Whenever I got a little into it with this guy from the other team, it fired me up a little bit and I just decided that they wouldn’t score anymore, not in my paint,” he said. “So this is what happened.”
Capela is happy with his improvement this season, but far from satisfied with his play. He knows he’ll have to keep getting better if the Rockets hope to reach the NBA finals.
“I’m just trying to be more consistent every game,” he said. “I think during the playoffs I’ve gotten better with my intensity and by doing that I thought that our team got better too.”