OAKLAND, Calif. — Even Clint Capela didn’t think this could happen.
Seven months ago, the rookie arrived in training camp hoping to find a place in the Rockets future. Two months ago, he was in the NBA D-League toiling for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Now, if a sprained left knee keeps Dwight Howard out of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Capela might find himself in the starting lineup against the Warriors. Or at the very least, getting significant playing time.
“When I was in the D-League, no, I would not think this was possible,” said the precocious 21-year-old native of Geneva, Switzerland. “I thought I’m not going to play this year, maybe next year. I was just trying to keep working hard and be ready when they would call me up.”
But with a live, aggressive body and a willingness to learn, Capela forced his way into the consciousness of the Rockets coaching staff and then into the playing rotation.
“Clint came in early in the season from the D-League because we’d been having injuries and we needed him to practice,” said coach Kevin McHale. “Then everyday you watched him in practice, you liked him a little bit more. We’re like, ‘Man, he’s playing better and better and better.’ He’s an easy guy to coach. He’s easy guy to gain confidence in because he’s so diligent and he’s just a hard-working kid.”
A kid who coincidentally was born in the year (1994) when the Rockets won their first NBA championship behind superstar center Hakeem Olajuwon and now is being regularly tutored by the Hall of Fame most days in practice.
“He tells me just little details on the game,” Capela said. “How I can defend. Attack on offense. What I can do now. What I will be able to do later. Just little things like that.”
The little things have added up to produce moments through the Rockets playoff run this spring when Capela is taking a feed from James Harden or Josh Smith to slam home a dunk or is coming from out of nowhere on defense to rise up and reject a shot. There is buoyancy to a his step, an insouciance to his demeanor that tells you that the moment will not overwhelm him and he feels right at home.
“Yeah, I know it’s the D-League to the NBA, but I feel like it’s just the same sport,” Capela said. “It’s just basketball and we’re all human. OK, the leagues change, sure. But in my mind I’m saying, ‘I’m just going to play basketball and that’s it.’ ”
Capela played 13 minutes after Howard was injured in Game 1, shooting 4-for-4, scoring nine points and pulling down four rebounds in 13 minutes. Most impressive was the way he consistently and fearlessly stepped outside to defend guard Stephen Curry, the league’s MVP.
“Even when I was younger, I was the bigger one, but I was always trying to defend all the little guards,” Capela said. “Because I always had the quick feet. It was pretty exciting to be able to be on (Curry). I hope I do better next time. In my mind, I think I can stop (him), do something.”
Howard says if the rookie has take on the burden of his minutes, there’s only way for the Rockets to approach it.
“Just gotta let him play,” Howard said. “Only advice I can say is he’s just gotta go out there and play as hard as he can. For his first playoff run, he’s done an excellent job of giving it everything he’s got.
“He’s been in the D-League for most of the year. Then to come out here and play with us, getting the minutes that he’s getting, he’s done an excellent job of playing defense and getting up on those guards…I think he’s playing great. I’m really proud and happy for his growth as a player.”
Capela smiled and nodded.
“I will get my mind ready,” he said.