The Hawks are the upstart team of this year’s conference finals, with Trae Young now eyeing a surprise run to the Finals way ahead of the franchise’s expected timeline. Yet as the Hawks enter Game 2 on Friday night in unfamiliar territory, the latter rounds of the playoffs aren’t so foreign to one of their most impactful players.
It wasn’t long ago that we saw Clint Capela in a different shade of red in the NBA’s Final Four. Capela’s growth as a young player coincided with the Rockets’ rise in the Western Conference, and before being traded in February 2020, Capela logged more than 1,300 playoff minutes. Lou Williams is the only Atlanta player with more postseason miles on his career odometer.
Capela wasn’t a mere attendee of Houston’s runs in the Western Conference playoffs. He outplayed Rudy Gobert in the 2018 and ’19 Western Conference semifinals, posting a plus-49 in four games in ’18. His performance was more of a mixed bag against the Warriors in those same seasons, though his presence wasn’t as necessary as the Rockets went small to match Golden State’s death lineup. Capela is now back in a major playoff role once again, where a strong series from the 27-year-old center could spark an upset.
Capela held his own against Joel Embiid in the conference semifinals. He finished in double figures four times in the seven-game series, with the Hawks’ allowing just 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor. Embiid shot 42.3% from the field in the series’s final four games, looking worn down as he battled a meniscus injury. Completely neutralizing the All-NBA center is nearly impossible. But Capela made Embiid work for every basket, and the Swiss center ran Embiid ragged in transition. After missing the final 18 games of 2019–20, Capela is proving to be a perfect finishing piece for the young Hawks.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by Capela’s performance vs. the 76ers. He outdueled Embiid on multiple occasions during his Houston tenure, including a 30-point, 14-rebound effort in a double-digit victory in 2020. Capela’s speed and athleticism led to a number of transition baskets, bringing postseason energy to a January battle. Capela noted the battle had a bit of a personal element when speaking to reporters postgame. The international centers were born just two months apart, and Embiid’s early-career fanfare is a stark contrast to Capela’s growth as a late-first-round pick. Yet even with considerably lower stakes, Capela’s advantages over Embiid were clear.
Capela’s assignment is less defined vs. Milwaukee. He spent parts of Game 1 matched up with Brook Lopez in a traditional center matchup, though, his greatest defensive contribution came as he defended Giannis Antetokounmpo both in the post and on face-up drives to the rim. The results were encouraging for most of Game 1. Capela backpedaled fluidly as Antetokounmpo started his charge, then stood tall as the two-time MVP bruised his way toward the rim. Battling Antetokounmpo is one of the most difficult assignments in basketball. Most get pushed toward the basket stanchion as Antetokounmpo bruises into the lane. Those who are strong enough to hold their ground are usually too lumbering to stay in front. Few players in basketball can mix Capela’s blend of size and agility, a combination that was integral in Game 1.
Capela is far more than a defensive anchor for Atlanta. He emerged as a premier lob threat over the last half-decade, and he averaged 1.20 points per possession on rolls to the rim in 2020–21. Capela and Young have a deep chemistry that is beginning to mirror the bond between him and Harden, with defenses forced to balance a pair of urgent threats. Young parks opposing defenders on his back as he prods into the lane, and without the requisite help, he’s bound to either finish an easy layup or careen his way into a defender for a foul. Bigs who worry about Young’s scoring will leap at the chance for a potential block, allowing Capela to dunk the ball with authority. The best option is to force Young into a stream of floaters, but as Milwaukee learned in Game 1, the philosophy is much simpler in theory than in practice. The difference between allowing a floater and an easy lay-in is a very thin line. Adding Capela as a lurking lob threat only complicates a defense’s confusion.
Capela’s athleticism paid major dividends for Atlanta in transition as well. He even beat Antetokounmpo down the floor on multiple occasions in Game 1, and perhaps more important, the threat of his running to the rim allowed the Hawks to fan out the perimeter in pseudo-transition situations. A slow center carrying the rear after a rebound allows an opposing defense to get set, finding the desired matchup with relative ease. Capela does nothing of the sort. His willingness and ability to sprint to the rim in transition forces defenses into difficult scramble situations, leaving open shooters scattered across the perimeter. Capela’s value isn’t properly accounted for in the box score. His speed and motor were pivotal to Atlanta's win in Game 1.
There could be one vulnerability exploited when Capela and Young share the floor through the rest of the series. Philadelphia trapped Young only sparingly in the second round, allowing him to waltz through each possession with little stress early in the shot clock. When the 76ers actually did trap the diminutive guard, they found success. Having Capela on the floor when Young is trapped is less than ideal, especially if Capela is involved as the initial screener. John Collins or Danilo Gallinari can receive a pass off the trap and begin moving downhill, punishing outnumbered defenses with a wide-open floor ahead. Capela can’t replicate such a scenario. Opponents had plenty of success trapping Harden in 2019–20, exploiting Capela’s lack of shooting and playmaking. He’d freeze with the ball in his hands around the foul line, occasionally flinging an errant pass out of bounds or off the backboard. Capela is a dynamic center in some respects. But he looks like Bizzaro Draymond Green when given the ball in space.
Atlanta’s conference finals opponent isn’t tailor-made to Capela’s strengths like the Knicks and 76ers, and the Bucks are a more functional offense than the Hawks’ aforementioned playoff foes in 2021. Pulling off the upset will require a dose of creativity from coach Nate McMillan and significant flexibility from Capela & Co. The Bucks can go five-out one quarter and pack the paint the next. They may opt for their traditional drop coverage for 36 minutes, then trap Young as the game gets late. But regardless of Milwaukee’s schematic decisions, Capela remains a potential swing piece in this series.
The Capela we're watching now isn't too dissimilar from the young center we saw blossom with the Rockets. There is no emerging jumper, and his ability as a rim protector is nothing new. But there's a certain edge Capela carries as he adjusts to a new role. He trash talked the Knicks in the first round, noting "we can push guys around too, we can talk s--- as well." Wednesday's win was followed by another statement of confidence. A road win in Milwaukee was no surprise to start the series, according to Capela. His message was simple, but it carries weight nonetheless.
"It’s our time," Capela said. "We earned the right to be here and we want to prove it."
Once the oversized little brother to Harden and Chris Paul, Capela now carries himself with the assuredness of a playoff veteran. After sending the Knicks and Sixers to summer vacation, Capela faces an even greater task in the conference finals. He's been up to the challenge thus far.
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