Playoffs 2018 West First Round: Rockets (1) vs. Timberwolves (8)

Clint Capela completes Houston Rockets' cornerstone trio

Including Game 1, Houston is 44-3 this season when Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul have played together

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

HOUSTON — Connecting the dots on these Houston Rockets this season starts with James Harden, the presumptive Kia MVP frontrunner and superstar scoring champ and game changing superstar.

Next is the addition of superstar point guard Chris Paul, for years now the epitome of the feisty floor general whose competitive nature can change the temperature in the room in an instant.

The third dot is Clint Capela. That’s right, the Swiss big man whose energy, athleticism, rim-protecting and rim-rolling gives the Rockets a lift the opposition often struggles to match when the talents of these three critical components of the best regular season in Rockets’ history come together.

It’s not as simple as that, of course, but the raw numbers — the Rockets were 43-3 during the regular season with all three of them in the lineup — make it clear to anyone that the cosmic energy of the Rockets’ three most dynamic players is undeniable.

That Capela completes the Rockets’ version of a “Big Three” is perhaps the biggest surprise in a season filled with them. Capela is a rising star, a bouncy young big whose name doesn’t always come up when the discussion shifts to the best young centers in the game. That could change if he duplicates his performance from the Rockets’ Game 1 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in their first round playoff series.

Capela worked the Timberwolves for 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half and finished with 24, 12 and three blocks, thoroughly outplaying Timberwolves All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns in his playoff debut.

“I’ve been here since Clint got here,” Harden said after that Game 1 win. “He’s developed, he listens, he works his butt off every single day, and it shows for big moments like that. So he has a long way to go. [But] helluva a job for Game one.”

An active Capela has been a good sign all season for the Rockets, who were 12-0 during the regular season when Capela scored 20 or more points and 21-0 when he had three or more blocks.

After posting 25 double-doubles in his first three seasons combined, Capela registered 42 this season. His work as the primary defender against Towns in Game 1 proved to be critical as the Rockets kept one of the league’s most dynamic bigs from getting untracked.

But it was just another day at the office for Capela, who relishes his role as the Rockets’ hard-hat worker.

“I’m just trying to bring this every night, which means I feel great whenever I get up on guards or whenever I’m in the post,” he said. “I just try to focus on what I have to do. I’ve been studying these guys, so I know what they are looking for and which way they’re trying to go. So every single tine I just try to be ready and make their job hard.”

Capela’s work habits and diligence have paid off handsomely for the Rockets, who selected Capela at No. 25 in the 2014 draft.

Once Dwight Howard’s understudy, Capela’s rapid rise eventually led to him replacing Howard as the Rockets’ starting center and the ideal pick-and-roll partner for Harden, whose developed a spectacular chemistry with his 23-year-old big man.

Capela’s confidence in his fourth season has been off the charts, as he posted career-highs in minutes (27.5), points (13.9), rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9).

After seeing spot duty in place of an injured Howard during his rookie season, Capela continued making his presence felt around the rim on both ends, a trait that always seems to work well for a big man in Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

“That’s why I’m still coming up and with energy and run hard, set screens and finish at the rim,” Capela said of his humble beginnings and evolution with the Rockets. “I’ve been doing it consistently and doing it well, which is why I’ve got my opportunity more and more. Now I’m starting, I’m trying to do it consistently every night at a high level. It’s been going well.”

If he can dial up a few more performances like he did in Game 1 against Towns and the Timberwolves, his breakout campaign could last deep into this postseason, perhaps into June.

“Clint is big right now,” Rockets reserve swingman Gerald Green said. “I mean, he’s our anchor. Defensively, that’s what makes him so special, not what he can do offensively, what he can do defensively to change the game for us. We need him to play like he did (in Game 1) for the rest of the games.”

Wednesday’s Game 2 at Toyota Center is a good place to start for Capela, who is set for a substantial raise on his $1.2-million salary this summer as a restricted free agent.

“He was sitting at the kid’s table at the wedding for a long time,” D’Antoni said. “Now he’s giving toasts and stuff like that. He’s up with the guys now and they have confidence in him and he’s matured a lot. He’s terrific. He’s really, really good. He’s definitely undervalued. He won’t be this summer when he gets paid. But right now he is. People kind of sleep on him a bit, but he’s one of the better centers in the league.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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