He’s able to recover quicker, going from one game to the next, and just overall isn’t feeling as banged up or tired as he was at the beginning of this season. He can now work on his body more, go for a jog or do a full-body workout, the things he typically likes to do to keep himself going – and leaps and bounds from being limited to a stationary bike.
Capela starting to play more like his old self the past 1 ½ months or so has helped the Hawks go 13-7 since the All-Star break in mid-February and win their last five games, moving up to No. 8 in the Eastern Conference standings after Saturday’s win against Brooklyn.
With four regular-season games left, beginning Tuesday in Toronto, there’s still time to jockey for position in the East (a No. 7 or 8 finish would mean the Hawks only have to win one game in the play-in tournament to nab a playoff spot, and a No. 9 or 10 finish would require two wins). Before this win streak, the Hawks had never been three games above .500 the whole season (they’re now four games over .500 at 41-37).
“We’ve needed that,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said of Capela’s improvement. “We’ve needed all our guys to step up their level of play. We talked about this probably a month ago; another level is what we needed to get to in these remaining games. And that was a challenge to the entire team, and it really starts with our first group and Clint is a big part of establishing that defense for us, defending the paint, rebounding the basketball, just being active and doing the things that he was doing last year.”
Before the All-Star break, Capela was shooting 58.6% from the field and was a plus-0.7. Since then, he’s shooting 65.5% from the field and is a plus-3.8, and overall has had a better motor. For the season, he’s at 10.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game, still a decrease from his 15.2 points and 14.3 rebounds last season, but him rounding into form down the stretch is important for the Hawks.
Last year, Capela dominating in the paint and cleaning up ample messes at the rim gave the Hawks just enough of an edge on defense that, combined with their stellar offense, catapulted them to the Eastern Conference finals. He anchored them, leading the league in rebounding, with a career-best two blocks per game.
For a good chunk of this season, he either didn’t look 100% healthy, looked a step slow or just wasn’t playing at the level he was last year. Because of how the roster is structured, that took its toll, with the Hawks needing to cover for Trae Young on defense, plus De’Andre Hunter having an up-and-down season and missing some time for wrist surgery and Cam Reddish, meant to be Atlanta’s other defensive-minded wing, regressing defensively and getting traded to the Knicks in January.
The Hawks have also struggled defending the perimeter and have taken a step back on defense (last year, they were just below average with a defensive rating of 112.1), and obviously all that doesn’t fall on Capela).
For the season, the Hawks still have a bottom-five defensive rating, No. 26 at 113.7. If you look at their defensive rating since the All-Star break (only games from Feb. 24 to now), they’re at 114.8, though that’s actually good for No. 13 in the league during that span. On this five-game win streak, they’ve been more active defensively, with 10 steals in Saturday’s win against the Nets helping them to their biggest win of the season.
Capela had nine points, a team-high 12 rebounds, one assist, two steals and one block in that game, the block coming with the Hawks leading by three with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter.
“He’s playing with a lot more energy,” Young said of Capela on this five-game win streak. “A lot more energy and a lot more, continuing to talk more. I think we’ve had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup this year, but Clint’s a big piece of our team, and when he’s playing at a high level, we’re also playing at a high level.
“It’s good that he’s been playing like he’s been playing recently, and we’re going to need it to finish out the season. … He’s one of the best big men in the league. He can block shots, and what he’s done on the defensive end, there’s only a few bigs in the league who do what he’s capable of doing.”
On this win streak, Capela has seen the Hawks be the aggressors on offense and defense. And he can tell a difference in his own game, as well.
“We are the one attacking. ... I just feel like, especially the way we’ve started the game by being the aggressor offensively, defensively, blocking shots, having steals, a lot of steals, being able to sprint down the floor, rim-run, and offensively just like I do, rebound the ball, and I feel like my percentage at times has been better, shooting percentage,” Capela said.