2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Rockets (1) vs. Jazz (5)

Clint Capela's quick ascent has given Houston Rockets stability in the post

Under the guidance of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets center has become a dangerous tool for James Harden's pick and roll game

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

SALT LAKE CITY — The form shown by the big man on the floor Saturday was unmistakable, the technique familiar, the execution precise. The body was surprisingly trim and fit, but Hakeem Olajuwon is 55 now and any hope of him suiting up and checking in at the scorer’s table is only a dream. So, he just settled for some playful shooting drills and a comical one-on-one against a Rockets’ staff member to pass the time.

But the Hall of Famer and two-time champion is helping his former team anyway by mentoring Clint Capela. Their workouts are more serious and obviously more important to the cause and follow a very simple pattern.

“He tells me what to do,” said Capela, “and I do it.”

That’s the proper way to learn from a legend, by being a sponge and taking those lessons and putting them into play. And anyone who has watched Capela this season, and especially in this playoff series against the Jazz, can claim witness to the rapid rise of the young center. Once an ornament and now a core member, Capela’s role is suddenly critical to the Rockets’ championship hopes, partially due to a big assist from the Dream.

“He comes to me every day at practice, saying, ‘You should try this, try that.’ He really believes I can do this,” said Capela. “When a guy like that comes to practice every day and is constantly telling you how good you can be, you start believing it.”

Yes, the 23-year-old from the hoops hotbed of Switzerland who just two years ago was raw and clunky is still pinching himself, with the Jazz feeling the sting. More precisely, Jazz center Rudy Gobert is getting punished; Capela is outplaying him at both rims and sometimes drastically so.

Capela is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds to Gobert’s 13 and 10 and the difference goes beyond the numbers. Offensively, there’s no comparison. Both are mainly catch-and-dunk centers, although Capela is more capable of creating his own shot and brings softer hands and better footwork.

When Capela took a pass and dribbled twice for a layup in Game 3, something he wouldn’t even consider pulling off a few years ago in practice, let alone a game, his teammates erupted.

“He’s out there doing Eurosteps,” said Harden.

And Capela is bringing the same rim-protecting shadow as Gobert, a strong favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He blocked four shots Friday and discouraged others. Remember, Capela is only 6-10, four inches shorter than Gobert, yet more mobile on the switches and help defense.

With production comes faith and trust from coach Mike D’Antoni, who’s giving Capela 32 minutes a night in the playoffs, by far the most playing time of Capela’s four-year career. That’s more evidence of where Capela stands in a system that favors three-point shooters.

“What he does for us as a team and me as a coach is invaluable,” said D’Antoni. “When I took the job, he was sitting at the kid’s table at the wedding. I didn’t know if he could take the leap from part time player to center on a team that was built to win a title. He’s done that and been terrific.”

After the Rockets drafted Capela with the 25th pick in 2014, he was a teenaged backup to Dwight Howard. Capela was unpolished and there were some troublesome offensive signs; his free throw shooting was especially poor and he was invisible beyond 10 feet from the rim. They brought in Olajuwon, who was training various NBA big men during the summers, to take on an ambitious project.

Capela was born the year Olajuwon helped the Rockets to their first championship. Capela’s brother gave him old DVDs of Olajuwon, and YouTube videos also helped, and all they did was cause Capela to develop a serious phobia.

“You saw how amazing he was and it made you a little intimidated when the workouts started,” Capela said. “It was hard to relax at first. I was like, wow he’s really talking to me? Really, me?”

Olajuwon’s first goal was to improve Capela’s footwork, and in this sense, it was similar to taking dance lessons from Astaire. Olajuwon’s feet were sharpened from playing soccer as a kid, which Capela did as well, so the basics were there.

Next: Catch the ball. Capela had to learn to anticipate the lobs and bounce passes from Harden and then use a gentle touch to drop layups with no hesitation. The last two seasons, as his minutes and touches have increased, Capela is averaging 64 percent shooting. Evidently, he’s catching the ball and putting it where it belongs, and it’s starting to become instinctive.

Harden now has no qualms about finding Capela on the pick and roll, which is suddenly the most devastating play in the book.

“He’s such as a good passer,” said Capela. “If I’m there the pass going to be, like, perfect. Doesn’t think about turnover. I’m like, ‘Damn every time this guy sees me he just throws it to me.’ Makes me confident.”

Finally: Olajuwon wanted him downcourt, and quickly, to fill the lane for layups or get position in the post while the Rockets spread the floor.

“It’s amazing to see how he has developed,” said Olajuwon. “Just the way he runs the floor and his fundamentals. He plays naturally, very confidently. And he has that toughness. He doesn’t back down.”

As a rookie, Capela took two shots a game. Now it’s nine. His scoring average this season was 13.9, up from two his rookie year. In these playoffs, it’s 16 points.

But Olajuwon didn’t want Capela to neglect the defensive end, so he expressed the importance of triggering the fast break with rebounds and blocked shots.

“Every shot is contested,” Olajuwon said.

It’s amazing to see how he has developed. Just the way he runs the floor and his fundamentals. He plays naturally, very confidently.

Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon on Clint Capela’s progress

D’Antoni said: “It’s awesome to see. People don’t go in for layups because of the intimidation factor. When we run and get a good pace, it works on our favor, and that starts with Clint and what he does on the defensive end.”

Capela’s most noticeable growth is in his confidence; his flow and his poise, which is evident and a direct result of his improved play and increased results. One feeds the other, and the combination will make him a favorite (along with Victor Oladipo ) for Most Improved Player.

“I’m in my fourth year now, and I can try stuff,” he said. “I’ve gotten more aggressive about my moves and offensively, and it was all from Hakeem.

“I know where I’ve come from since I got here and the work I’ve put in, how to make myself important to the team. I’ve been in the gym, I’ve been watching a lot of film. I’m just glad everybody sees it. It brings me even more motivation about what I’m doing.”

The Rockets were 42-3 during the regular season when Capela, Harden and Chris Paul were on the floor together and they’re up 2-1 on the Jazz.

Harden tells him: “Just go out there and play with some swagger and hoop.”

Olajuwon says: “Believe me, he has so much more to offer that you haven’t seen.”

The more you see, the bigger the role and visibility and impact at both ends by a center who’s expanding through the playoffs, the more it’s worth asking: Do the Rockets have a Big Three?

Capela smiled.

“You tell me,” he said with a laugh. “You tell me.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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