Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

Clint Capela's defense gives Rockets a chance at the impossible

Clint Capela (Getty Images)

When Clint Capela blocked Donovan Mitchell's layup with three minutes remaining in Game 4, he did his best Dikembe Mutombo impression by waving his index finger at the crowd in Utah.

Then, Capela became Mutombo.

Less than a minute later, Capela found himself switched onto Mitchell at the top of the perimeter. He lunged at the rookie to prevent him from pulling-up from the perimeter and followed him step-for-step as he made his way towards the basket. When Mitchell tried to sneak a layup between Capela and P.J. Tucker in the restricted area, the Rockets center swatted his shot out of bounds for the second time in 60 seconds.

That turned out to be Mitchell's final shot attempt of the game, but Capela wasn't done protecting the rim yet. His fourth block of the night came against Rudy Gobert, who saw his finger roll end up directly in the hands of Chris Paul. It left little hope for Raul Neto and Joe Ingles, both of whom tried and failed to score over Capela in the closing seconds of a game the Rockets won by double figures to take control of the series.

In the end, Capela became only the fourth player in the last 20 years to block at least five shots in the fourth quarter of a postseason game. None of them, however, managed to do it over the course of three minutes like he did.

"I got fired up," Capela told The Houston Chronicle afterwards . "I decided that they wouldn't score anymore, not in my paint."

Capela blocked an additional 12 shots in the four other games of the series, giving him more than anyone else in the second round of the playoffs. He also contested more shots at the rim than anyone else did in the conference semifinals. According to NBA.com , the Jazz missed 33 of the 65 shots they attempted when they came between Capela and 6-feet of the basket. It made him one of three players to contest 40 or more shots in those situations, the others being Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green, two of the best rim protectors in the league.

Of the two, only Gobert forced misses at a higher rate than Capela.

Capela is more than just a rim protector, though. The Rockets have implemented a switch-heavy scheme that would fall apart if they didn't have a center who was capable of defending smaller players in space. Because they do, Capela found himself in a "mismatch" more than any other center in the league during the regular season based on dat compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus .

It makes Capela the rare type of center who can anchor a defense and chase smaller players around on the perimeter when needed, and it's something the 23-year-old is only getting better at. We saw it come together in Houston's series against Utah, when Capela helped the Rockets limit the Jazz to 95.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Not only did it give him one of the best defensive ratings of the second round, it was 12.4 points per 100 possessions better than Houston's defensive rating he took a seat on the bench.

One player in particular who benefitted from Capela's minutes on the bench was Donovan Mitchell. According to NBA.com , Mitchell made only 32.1 percent of his total shot attempts when Capela was on the court compared to 52.6 percent when he was on the bench. While Capela wasn't directly involved in all of those misses, his versatility contributed to Mitchell making only 18 of the 47 shots he attempted in the paint.

As impressive as the blocks are, it's these sequences that show how disruptive Capela can be as a defender:

The next step for Capela is making the same impact against the best teams in the league. All of the changes the Rockets made to their roster in the offseason were done so with the Warriors in mind, not the Timberwolves and Jazz, but Capela is the one who unlocks a lot of their potential on both ends of the court. It starts with him opening up the floor for Paul and James Harden on offense by setting screens and making himself as big of a target as possible at the basket, and extends to him anchoring Houston's defense with his rim protection and switchability.

It gives the Rockets the option of playing big or small without sacrificing anything on offense and defense, which will become a factor when they're matched up with Golden State's "Hamptons Five" lineup in the next round. Whereas Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green run most centers off the floor, Capela is unique in that he has the length to impact shots at the basket, the foot speed to keep up with them on switches and the size to make them pay on offense by going places Durant and Green can't. If he can force the Warriors to play more traditional lineups as a way of countering him, it will level the playing field for the Rockets.

You best believe Capela will let the Warriors know about it if he does, too - probably with a finger wag that would make Dikembe Mutombo proud.

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