The Hawks are the upstart team for this year’s conference finals, with Trae Young now looking at a surprise run to the Finals long before the franchise’s expected timeline. Yet when the Hawks enter Game 2 on Friday night into unfamiliar territory, the final rounds of the playoffs are not so alien to one of their most shocking players.
It wasn’t long ago that we saw Clint Capela in a different shade of red at the NBA 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 recorded more than 1,300 playoff minutes. Lou Williams is the only Atlanta player with the most postseason miles on his career odometer.
Capela was no mere assistant to Houston’s runs in the Western Conference playoffs. He outscored Rudy Gobert in the Western Conference semifinals of 2018 and ’19, posting a plus-49 in four games in ’18. His performance was rather mixed against the Warriors in those same seasons, although his presence was not as necessary as the Rockets grew small to match Golden State’s death row. Capela is now back in a major role in the playoffs once again, where a strong run from the 27-year-old center could cause a surprise.
Capela held firm against Joel Embiid in the conference semifinals. He finished in double figures four times in the seven-game series, and the Hawks allowed just 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor. Embiid shot 42.3% from the field in the final four games of the series, looking worn out as he battled a meniscus injury. Completely neutralizing the All-NBA center is almost impossible. But Capela made Embiid work for each basket, and the Swiss center ran to Embiid erratically in the transition. After missing the last 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 against the 76ers. He outpointed Embiid multiple times during his tenure in Houston, including a 30-point, 14-rebound effort in a double-digit victory in 2020. Capela’s speed and athleticism led to several transition baskets, which carried the energy of the postseason to a January battle. Capela noted that the battle had a personal element when he spoke to reporters after the game. The international centers were born just two months apart, and Embiid’s fanfare early in the race is a stark contrast to Capela’s growth as a late first-round pick. However, even at considerably lower stakes, Capela’s advantages over Embiid were clear.
Capela’s allocation is less defined versus Milwaukee. He spent parts of Game 1 paired with Brook Lopez in a traditional center matchup, however, his greatest defensive contribution came when he defended Giannis Antetokounmpo both on the post and on face-up shots to the rim. The results were encouraging for most of Game 1. Capela fluently fell back as Antetokounmpo began his attack, then stood tall as the two-time MVP pushed his way to the rim. Fighting Antetokounmpo is one of the most difficult assignments in basketball. Most are pushed towards the basket post when Antetokounmpo hits the lane. Those that are strong enough to stand their ground are often too heavy to stay in front. Few basketball players can mix Capela’s combination of size and agility, a combination that was integral in Game 1.
Capela is much more than a defensive anchor for Atlanta. He emerged as one of the top balloon threats in the past half decade, averaging 1.20 points per possession on shots to the basket in 2020-21. Capela and Young have a deep chemistry that begins to reflect the bond between him and Harden, with defenses forced to balance a pair of urgent threats. The youngster parks with his back to opposing defenders as he pushes into the lane, and without the necessary help, he will surely finish an easy layup or fight his way to a defender on a foul. The greats who worry about Young’s scoring will seize the opportunity for a potential block, allowing Capela to shoot the ball with authority. The best option is to force Young into a series of floats, but as Milwaukee learned in Game 1, the philosophy is much simpler in theory than in practice. The difference between allowing a float and easy donning is a very fine line. Adding Capela as a lurking balloon threat only compounds the defense’s confusion.
Capela’s athletics also paid big dividends for Atlanta in the transition. He even beat Antetokounmpo on the court multiple times in Game 1, and perhaps most importantly, the threat of running to the basket allowed the Hawks to deploy the perimeter in pseudo-transition situations. A slow center trailing behind after a rebound allows the opposing defense to establish themselves and find the desired pairing with relative ease. Capela does nothing of the kind. His willingness and ability to run to the basket in transition forces defenses to tackle tough situations, leaving open shooters scattered around the perimeter. Capela’s value is not properly accounted for in the scoring chart. His speed and engine wreak havoc on both ends of the court, as evidenced by his cleaning bucket in the stretch of Game 1.
There could be a vulnerability exploited when Capela and Young share the flat for the rest of the series. Philadelphia caught Young only sparingly in the second round, allowing him to smash through each possession with little stress early on the shot clock. When the 76ers really caught the tiny guard, they found success. Having Capela on the floor when Young is trapped is less than ideal, especially if Capela is involved as the starting screener. John Collins or Danilo Gallinari can take a pass from the trap and start moving downhill, punishing outnumbered defenses with a wide open floor ahead. Capela cannot replicate such a scenario. Opponents were very successful catching Harden in 2019-20, exploiting Capela’s lack of shooting and plays. He would freeze with the ball in his hands around the foul line, occasionally throwing an errant pass out of bounds or off the board. Capela is a dynamic center in some respects. But he looks like Bizzaro Draymond Green when he is given the ball in space.
Atlanta’s conference finals opponent isn’t tailor-made for Capela’s strengths like the Knicks and 76ers, and the Bucks are a more functional offense than the Hawks’ aforementioned playoff foes in 2021. Achieve it. Surprise will require a dose of creativity from coach Nate McMillan and a great deal of flexibility from Capela & Co. The Bucks can get five in one quarter and pack the paint the next. They can go for their traditional knockdown coverage for 36 minutes and then catch Young when the game gets late. But regardless of Milwaukee’s sketchy decisions, Capela remains a potential swing piece in this series. After defeating one of the NBA’s biggest giants last week, Capela faces an even bigger task in the conference finals. It has risen to the challenge thus far.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• Pina: the all-money NBA playoff team
• How does it feel to see the team you built prosper without you?
• Bromberg: The Falcons found an unlikely hero in Kevin Huerter
• Trae Young silences another visiting crowd with his pro performance in Game 1
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.