Clint Capela had a doubter in Mike D’Antoni.
When the Houston Rockets coach took the job last year, he didn’t think Capela was a bad basketball player. He saw a young guy with significant athleticism and potential.
But, potential wasn’t going to win the Rockets an NBA championship. And D’Antoni didn’t get back into coaching to develop youngsters. He wanted to win — now.
“I just didn’t know if Clint could go from part-time starter to an important piece of a title team,” D’Antoni said.
That first thought seems silly to D’Antoni now. In less than two seasons, Capela has gone from Dwight Howard’s backup to an important piece on a championship contender.
Capela has been at the center of it all for Houston — literally — as the Rockets hold a 2-1 series lead over the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals. Capela is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game in the series and has arguably outplayed Jazz center Rudy Gobert, one of the best centers in the NBA.
For the Jazz to have a chance in the series, they needed Gobert to be dominant. Capela has prevented that. As a result, the Jazz are in a precarious position heading into Sunday’s Game 4.
“Just because I know where I came from, I know how much work and focus that I’ve put into this,” Capela said. “I’ve wanted to make myself important to the team. I’m just glad that now everybody sees it. It just gives me more motivation and confidence to continue what I’m doing.”
Capela has been a nuisance to the Jazz offensively, finishing at the rim when Houston star James Harden breaks into the paint off the dribble. Defensively, he’s been dominant, protecting the rim and deterring Jazz finishers.
“I thought in that second quarter [Friday], he was just awesome,” D’Antoni said. “When we are running and when we get a good pace, that’s when we’re at our best. And a lot of that, it starts with Clint setting the tone defensively.”
Capela’s development has been stark. Two seasons ago, he was averaging seven points per game, and there were questions as to whether he’d become a full-time starter.
He has worked extensively with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who carried the Rockets franchise to a pair of rings in the 1990s. Olajuwon has consistently told Capela he can be a factor, helping boost his confidence. And Capela, who came to the NBA as a wide-eyed 20 year-old, carries himself in a different manner.
“It just really helps when someone like Hakeem says that you can do something,” Capela said.
Capela is now comfortable in a role he has carved for himself. He’s a perfect fit next to Harden and Chris Paul as a rim-runner and finisher. The Rockets don’t run many plays for him, and they don’t need to. He’s been so active during the series that he’s made himself a factor on most possessions on both ends of the floor.
Two years ago, his coach wondered whether he was the right guy to play center on his team. On Sunday night, the Rockets will take the floor at Vivint wondering how they would survive without him.
That’s quite the journey.