On the outside of the Toyota Center, the building that will host the most anticipated series of the NBA season beginning on Monday, Chris Paul and James Harden are front and center in a promotional photo.
To the right of Paul is Trevor Ariza, a veteran swingman who has become a prototypical NBA role player. To Harden’s left is Eric Gordon, an oft-injured, high-scoring reserve guard. On the margins, third from center, is Clint Capela, maybe the key to unseating the Golden State Warriors in the West.
When Capela, Harden and Paul all play, including the postseason, Houston is an imposing 50-5.
“He’s important to our team. You saw what our record was this year when Clint played. It’s no secret,” Paul said Sunday. “Everyone always wants to point out me and James, but he’s the X factor. When Clint doesn’t play, we’re in trouble.”
Capela, who turns 24 this Friday, has been nearly as important as Harden and Paul this postseason, out-playing former No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns in the opening round and Utah’s Rudy Gobert in the second.
In 10 postseason games, he’s averaging 14.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocked shots and a steal.
His role in the Houston offense, largely, is to set screens and dive to the rim, but that’s more about the system limiting Capela than the other way around.
“I think (people) underestimate him, which is good for us. There’s always a little caveat — ‘well, he’s good for his role. No. He’s (just) good,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s a good center. Now we don’t go to him in the low post. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it. It’s not the best option we have. But he has great moves inside. He could do it.”
Capela, the No. 25 overall pick in the routinely panned 2014 draft, went behind players like Noah Vonleh, Adreian Payne and Mitch McGary.
“I’m just trying to prove my value,” Capela said Sunday. “I’m just having fun out there. It’s been great the last two series, I’ve done well. I’m excited about it and happy that everyone sees it. I enjoy the success of the team.”
D’Antoni said his ability to switch and defend multiple players from the center position could be the key in slowing one of the NBA’s top offenses.
“It’s almost a must that you have to have this against Golden State or else they’re going to get you,” D’Antoni said. “This will help. They’re still going to get us to a certain degree, but hopefully we can lessen it.”
The shear amount of basketball the Golden State Warriors have played over the last three seasons was enough to numb the team during the 82-game regular season.
But during their 4-1 series win against New Orleans in the conference semifinals, the Warriors seemed to shift into championship mode.
“I think we’re in excellent shape mentally,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “This is the most dialed in we’ve been this year. You can just feel it in practice. You can see it in the guys’ faces.”
Stephen Curry played just once in the Warriors’ final 17 games of the regular season because of ankle and knee injuries, but he returned in Game 2 of the team’s series with New Orleans.
The Warriors also lost Kevin Durant for six games near the end of the season because of a rib fracture, but they’re near full strength entering the series, with only reserve guard Patrick McCaw out.