Clint Capela’s Two-Way Brilliance Is Making Life Difficult For The Knicks

There was a time, during the 2017-18 postseason, when Clint Capela seemed destined for years and years of playoff success as a prototypical auxiliary center — protecting the paint, surviving on the perimeter, bludgeoning opponents with screens, and snaring lobs to finish as well as anyone. He was fresh off of two series outplaying All-NBA centers Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, helping commandeer the top-seeded Houston Rockets into a Western Conference Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors.

But then, he struggled against the Warriors. Injuries began to strike shortly after. He missed 15 games in 2018-19 and failed to foster the same imprint as a defensive anchor. Last season, he sat out the final six weeks of the season due to a heel injury. The Atlanta Hawks acquired Capela in February 2020, but he did not suit up for them until December 2020.

After an array of lower-leg afflictions, Capela looked physically compromised, lacking the same sprightly bounce and coordination that fueled his early career exploits. Yet once he found his rhythm following an 11-month absence, he produced his best season to date, supplying a vital role amid Atlanta’s resurgence in which they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.

And when the Hawks soon eliminate the New York Knicks, marking their first series win in half a decade (barring something catastrophic happening to Atlanta, of course), Capela’s performance will have keyed that victory as well. Trae Young has been the best player on either side, but Capela — not All-Star Julius Randle — is the runner-up, and it’s a primary reason the Hawks control the tide of this matchup.

During the regular season, Capela cobbled together an All-Defensive Team-caliber campaign, reemerging as a preeminent rim protector and inhaling rebounds. If the Knicks had votes for those teams after this series, it might be a clean sweep in his favor. He’s the Big Apple Bogeyman, deterring or altering shot after shot in the paint and scaring guys away from even challenging him. According to Cleaning The Glass, when he’s on the court, the Knicks are taking 4.9 percent fewer of their attempts at the rim (84th percentile) and they’re shooting 8.7 percent worse on those looks (79th percentile).

He’s adept at containing 1-on-2 situations, aptly playing between ball-handler and roller. He’s prompt in help rotations while touting a bouncy vertical and 7-foot-5 wingspan to get a paw on the ball for rejections (2.3 per game in the playoffs). Through four games, the lone reprieve for New York has seemingly been his 60 minutes of rest.

Less flashy than even the unglamorous grunge work of rim protection is rebounding, where he has similarly excelled all season. He led the NBA in offensive, defensive, and total rebounding rate in the regular season and has maintained a similar edge over the past week and a half. The Knicks’ offense is sputtering because of Capela’s presence, Randle’s undoing (40.3 percent true shooting), and rigidity from the coaching staff, but Capela also prevents them from many second-chance points.

Again, he’s long and lively off the floor, which he utilizes to avoid cheap fouls (six fouls through four games) on the pursuit of rebounds, simply extending around or over rather than through opposition to corral boards. He’s dissuading or affecting a number of field goals, and when New York does shoot, he overwhelmingly ensures that’s the extent of its possession. This approach is how one leads the league in defensive rebounding rate and gobbles up 42 rebounds in 132 minutes:

Although Randle’s playoff trials are less connected to Capela, he is still part of the inaugural All-Star’s poor performance. By shading help in or near the paint, he discourages Randle from driving and allows his teammates to stay at home. Randle wants to leverage his size and ball-handling to lure help and spray passes to shooters, cutters, or slashers. If defenders don’t commit, he’ll bury his guy with star-level shot-making. That was the general formula in the regular season. It helped the Knicks piece together an offense that did not totally derail their top-five defense.

With far fewer opportunities to create for others and a suddenly scuffling jumper, Randle and the Knicks are faltering. He’s shooting 43 percent at the rim (59 percent in the regular season) and his assist-to-turnover ratio has declined from 1.77 to 1.13. Capela is not the headliner for those regressions, but his menacing shadow on the interior has complicated Randle’s decision-making.

As Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and John Collins (Game 2 aside) have steadied the ship offensively, Capela has blended into the attack with screening, finishing, and the omnipresent threat of a lob. New York has prioritized sinking or tagging from the weak-side in drop coverage to eliminate him on the roll, which is why he’s taking just 6.5 shots per game, compared to 11 during the regular season. As a result, it’s opened up copious amounts of space in the paint, often from floater range — Young’s preferred region in the paint.

Broadly speaking, the Knicks have been so concerned with reducing the touches around the rim for an elite finisher, and it’s simplifying looks for Atlanta’s ball-handlers. Capela’s vertical gravity is imposing itself, even though he’s only eclipsed more than 10 points once in four games. Floor-spacing exists beyond three-point shooting. Capela, by way of the attention he commands and those sneaky Marcin Gortat seals, is proof of that theory.

To prompt a defense to play like that, veering away from drivers with the ball, an actual foundation of aptitude as a roller and finisher must subsist. Capela checks that box. When the Knicks don’t get a body onto him early, he shines, suitably timing dives or cuts to maintain clear passing angles for ball-handlers and moving into space at opportune moments.

Those subtle skills are quite valuable, often distinguishing guys between elite and sub-elite play-finishing bigs. Premier creators will work around the differentiators. Capable, albeit not premier, creators may struggle to do so. Capela helps bridge the gap for the Hawks’ complementary initiators of which there are many. Possessions are easier for lesser players because of him, the signature of most excellent athletes. But alongside Young, both are foremost in their role of offensive engine and lob threat. New York has not yet, nor likely will it, have an effective counter for this duo.

Through four games, Young has delighted with his pull-up game and pick-and-roll virtuosity, while Bogdanovic has drained momentum-jolting shots and thrived as a secondary scorer. They’re each foundational in Atlanta’s first-round dominance. Capela, though, is replicating a similar style that made his play and rise hot-button topics three seasons. He’s besting an All-Star big and teaming with a lethal ball-handler to flummox opponents, bringing the Hawks one win away from their first series win of the Trae Young Era.