‘This is what I do:’ how Clint Capela transformed the Hawks’ defense

Charlotte Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels (left) drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela during the third quarter Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (Nell Redmond/AP)

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Charlotte Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels (left) drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela during the third quarter Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (Nell Redmond/AP)

Not long after the Hawks’ blowout loss to Memphis on April 7, guard Bogdan Bogdanovic let center Clint Capela know just how much the team felt his absence.

The Hawks, who have won seven of their past nine games, were missing five other players, including John Collins, Danilo Gallinari and De’Andre Hunter — but without Capela, the defense didn’t stand much of a chance.

“Right after that game against Memphis, I told him, ‘You saw what happened,’” Bogdanovic said. “‘We couldn’t stop them.’”

Capela has proved to be a vital addition to a Hawks team seeking to go from 20-47 last season to a playoff run this season. He has given the Hawks a huge boost on defense as a rim protector and anchor, and brings postseason experience (from his five-and-a-half seasons in Houston) and a winning mentality to a team whose core is still young and, as interim coach Nate McMillan has said, is still learning how to buckle down and win close games.

“I’m just so happy to see the difference from last year to this year,” Capela said. “I was just looking at where the team finished last year, 20 wins, and it’s a whole ‘nother team, it’s a whole ‘nother swagger that we have now. And I just love it. I just enjoy it as much as I can and enjoy helping this team to get better, because we still need to get better.”

He’s shown remarkable consistency and is one of the main factors behind the team’s turnaround. There’s room for improvement, but the Hawks are no longer pushed around on defense as they once were, even while missing three of their best defenders in Hunter (right knee soreness), Cam Reddish (right Achilles soreness) and Kris Dunn (right ankle surgery).

Capela ranks first in the NBA in total rebounds (14.3 per game), first in offensive rebounds (4.7) and third in blocks (2.2), all of those career-best marks. He ranks second in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (4.85), behind only Utah’s Rudy Gobert (6.31). Put all this together, and Capela is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year or the NBA’s All-Defensive team, which he said is a goal.

“I’m a guy who definitely thinks about that, because this is what I do and this is how I help my team win,” Capela said. “And this is how I also get to have a huge impact on the game, that’s defensively, and I think I’m definitely one of the best at doing it. … I feel that I’m playing the best defense of my career this season, yes, simply because I feel the guys give me the confidence to do so.”

Third-year wing Kevin Huerter gave Capela’s defense a strong endorsement, saying he “no doubt” should be in the running for DPOY: “He’s a complete difference-maker. Just a different feeling when he’s in the game. Just as a guard, you trust him a little bit more back there. I think you can play guys a little differently knowing that if you get beat, you always have Clint on the backside. I think you don’t have to help nearly as much, and he really picks up for everybody. I don’t think we can stress it enough.”

Thanks largely to Capela, the Hawks have gone from giving up a league-worst 53.6 points in the paint per game last season to giving up 48.5 points in the paint per game this season (20th in the league). They went from a 114.4 defensive rating last season (27th) to 112.3 so far this season (T19th), which has slipped recently mostly because injuries to perimeter defenders have racked up.

These aren’t perfect marks for the Hawks, but are pretty good considering where they were last season and all the players they’re missing (they’ve been without Collins, who has paired well with Capela on defense, for two weeks).

“I just think my overall defense in the paint, defending pick-and-rolls, knowing (personnel), and the fact that I’m not making a lot of mistakes, not making the same mistakes twice, always make sure I’m on the same string with my teammates on how do we help, how do we want to defend, how do you want me to protect at the rim,” Capela said of how he’s developed as a defender. “And of course, rebounding the ball. And first of all, to make sure (teammates) know I’m down there for them, if guys drop by, someone tries to score the ball.”

For all his defensive contributions, he’s also averaging 15.4 points per game and brings plenty to the table on offense, with his speed and talent as a roller and lob threat. His offensive rebounding ability allows the Hawks to extend possessions and gives them second-chance opportunities. In last Sunday’s win in Charlotte, Capela recorded his league-leading eighth game with 20-plus points and 15-plus boards, shooting 60% or better from the field.

After the win, McMillan complimented Capela’s ability to clean up the Hawks’ mistakes, if there is a defensive breakdown, as well as his talent as a screener and rebounder. And, Capela’s steadiness in the paint frees other players to be more aggressive on the ball.

“He’s been, really, the glue for us all season long,” McMillan said afterward. “His ability to defend the basket, cover up our mistakes, rebound the basketball. We won the boards tonight, most of the time due to Clint. And his ability to set screens and these guys are finding him with roll or the lob on the offensive end, so he is a threat on both ends of the floor. We’re not posting him up, but we’re taking advantage of these teams that are playing small ball, and he’s been able to do a great job really all season long of punishing them in the paint, on the boards when teams go small.”

Capela has certainly had to clean things up for the Hawks on defense, and that’s something that may come into play in the postseason, as they’ll need more from other guys and need to keep him out of foul trouble. Getting more defenders back healthy could help, in that regard.

He’s also acting as an organizer on the backline. The Hawks often were hurt by a lack of communication last season, particularly on defense, so Capela growing increasingly comfortable speaking up and directing traffic bodes well.

“It makes a whole difference, definitely, defensively, to make sure that the guys stay on point about what we need to do defensively, to make sure that they stay accountable about their job on defense, because this is how we win games. … I can feel that I’m getting more and more comfortable talking about the defense because this is what I do, and whenever I see mistakes, I want my guys to not make the same mistakes twice,” Capela said.

He’s also trying to help teammates out, letting them know when they’re out of position, or telling them to clear out so he can challenge the shot at the rim.

“He’s starting to, seems like, get a little bit more comfortable speaking to the group, holding guys accountable for where they need to be, mostly on the defensive end of the floor,” McMillan said. “But he is talking offensively, with the guards, on angles of screens and things that they need to do, what he is seeing from the defense through the eyes of a center on the offensive end of the floor.

“So he is being a little bit more talkative on both ends, and that just comes with these guys being connected. They trust each other. He’s been doing a really good job for us all season long of being the anchor to our defense and those guys know that he is back there. But he doesn’t want to always have to continue to bail out situations where we’re having breakdowns on the perimeter, so he’s been really vocal with that.”

Under Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks were 14-20 this season, underwhelming despite the onslaught of injuries, considering all the players they had added to bolster the roster, including Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari.

Remembering the way a few players started to lose heart after the 121-109 loss in Boston on Feb. 19, one thing Capela tries to instill is mental toughness even when things go wrong. “Keep your head up,” he told the guys at the time. Since McMillan has taken over, they’ve gone 16-6 to put them at 30-26, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference standings.

Overall, one big difference emerging for the Hawks this season, per Capela, is a sense of urgency when it comes to winning now. They’re not just trying to put up a good fight, or show contending teams they can hang with them, which he felt was the case last year. They want to win those games. It’s a “night and day” mentality change, he said.

This is more of what he envisioned, more of what he wanted to bring to the Hawks, who already have surpassed the win total of the 2018 season (29-53) and last season (20-47). Overall, they’ve also drastically improved in the fourth quarter after struggling to close games in the first half of the season. With those improvements, Capela’s encouraged by what the future holds for the Hawks.

“I’d been hearing from the guys, like ‘We’ve never won more than 22 games, 20 games,’ and I told them ‘Trust me, with me, 20, 22 games, this is not going to happen,’” Capela said. “I had also heard close games, we always lose, but I was like ‘It’s going to be different this year, trust me.’ And this is what’s happening now. We also have a great group of guys. We’re been doing, really, a great job, and I feel like we’re always getting better, so that’s really the exciting part.”