SALT LAKE CITY -- Clint Capela provided the exclamation point to the Houston Rockets' 100-87 win over the Utah Jazz, swatting Joe Ingles' layup attempt just before the final buzzer of Sunday's Game 4, the big man's career-high-tying sixth blocked shot of the night.
Rockets superstar James Harden immediately rushed toward him, close enough for the probable MVP's famed whiskers to brush Capela's face. Harden grabbed Capela and hollered a congratulatory message, using a little language you wouldn't want the national-television microphones to pick up.
"I can't exactly tell you what I said to him," Harden said with a smile. "He's put himself in this position to go out there and play at a high level and do the things that we ask him to do every single night. I mean, he has our back, and it feels good to have somebody have our back like he does. He doesn't get a lot of credit for it."
Ah, Capela is starting to get plenty of credit, as it's impossible to ignore his impact on the Rockets' playoff run. His 12-point, 15-rebound, 6-swat, 2-steal night in the win over the Jazz came as no surprise. Capela has been a dominant force during the first two rounds, outplaying a pair of elite centers in Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns and Utah's Rudy Gobert, to help put Houston on the brink of a much-anticipated Western Conference finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
Harden and Chris Paul are Houston's headliners, but the Rockets knew all along that they needed the 23-year-old Capela to emerge as a legitimate third star to have a legitimate chance to challenge the defending champion Warriors. That happened during the regular season, when Capela averaged 13.9 points and 10.8 rebounds while leading the league in field goal percentage (.652) as the Rockets rolled the NBA's best record.
The springy center from Switzerland has taken another big leap during the playoffs. Capela is averaging 15.4 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, and those numbers tell only part of the tale.
For instance, Paul attributes much of his midrange assassination of the Jazz to Capela's presence. Gobert knows if he strays too far from Capela, Paul will feed him for a dunk, keeping the NBA's premier rim protector close to the basket. Paul gladly takes those midrange looks -- "layups for me" -- and knocked down 11 of 17 jumpers inside the 3-point line while scoring a game-high 27 points Sunday.
"It's so many things that happen throughout the game that don't show up on the stat sheet," Paul said of Capela. "It shows how selfless he is."
Paul specifically mentioned another play, a steal he made off a pass Donovan Mitchell made due to Capela's interior defense. Utah coach Quin Snyder bemoaned the Jazz's poor finishing in this game, noting that Utah missed almost 22 of its 45 attempts at the rim, but acknowledged that Capela significantly factored into that equation.
Capela has been a dominant rim protector during the postseason, but some of his most impressive defensive work has come on the perimeter. The former soccer player's quick feet give the Rockets the luxury of running a switch-everything scheme. Time after time, Capela has made it difficult for Jazz guards, even rookie sensation Mitchell, to generate good looks after they get him on an island in isolation situations.
"He makes winning plays," Snyder said of Capela, which is about as lofty a compliment as an opposing coach can give a player.
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni has been heaping praise on Capela since arriving in Houston a couple of summers ago, calling him the ideal big man for the modern-day game. D'Antoni often said that improving his endurance is the final hurdle for Capela in establishing himself as an elite center.
The Rockets require Capela to constantly play like his hair is on fire, sprinting the court, setting screens, rolling hard to the rim, fighting for rebounds, chasing guards on the perimeter and challenging shots. He has the most physically taxing job on the team. That's why minutes might be Capela's most notable stat from the playoffs. He's averaging 32 minutes a game, up from 27.5 during the regular season. Capela played 36 minutes in Houston's Game 3 win, matching his previous career high, and then logged 37 minutes in Game 4.
"I think he pole vaulted over the hurdle," D'Antoni said. "He cleared it by a lot. And the guy was incredible the whole time."
There was a moment in Game 4 when fatigue was a concern for Capela. With about four minutes remaining, Capela motioned to the Rockets' bench that he needed a breather. D'Antoni called a timeout and started to send a sub in for Capela, but the big man told him not to bother.
"Two minutes was enough for me," Capela said, referring to the length of the timeout. "That's what I was asking for. I was like, 'We have the timeout, so I'm good, I'm ready to go back.' I went back out there and felt great."
That was apparent during perhaps the best defensive stretch of Capela's young career. He stole a Raul Neto pass on the Rockets' next defensive possession and then blocked five shots in the final 2:39, putting the finishing touches on another dominant performance.