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Bless you, Clint Capela.

Is it too late to cast an All-Star vote for the Houston Rockets center? If he were here right now, I’d put one arm around his shoulder and give him an affectionate noogie with the other (even if I had to stack several milk crates to make it happen).

With a few indiscreet words, Capela managed to create a rivalry between the Warriors and a team that is neither the Clippers nor the Cavaliers, and to inject some juice into an NBA season that seemed destined to be just another victory lap for Golden State.

It started with the Rockets’ 116-108 win against the Warriors on Saturday. After the game, Capela had the cheek to rank his team ahead of the defending champions. Yes, he went there.

This is what Capela said: “We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them. We’ve got to keep playing. We know that they’re going to come back if we have the lead, and we’ve just got to keep that mindset. Sometimes I feel like, in the past, we were all dragging down after mistakes. But today, we were ready. I think that if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on defense — all the switches, the weak-side (help) — and keep playing our offense by keeping that mentality all game long, we have the weapons to beat them. We are better than them.”

And this is what we heard: “We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them. BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. We are better than them.”

Better than the Warriors? The team that was the NBA gold standard BEFORE it signed Kevin Durant? The team that seems to break a scoring mark or establish a league-record streak twice a week? Who is Clint Capela again?

NBA players aren’t afraid of the Warriors, exactly. These are proud professionals, each dependent on his belief that he’s the greatest athlete in the universe. But the opposition has come to treat Steve Kerr’s team with a bit of deference. Four of the best squads in basketball got a crack at these guys in the 2017 playoffs, and combined to win one of 16 games.

And yet Capela went ahead and lit the fuse. He’s only 23 years old, and a native of Switzerland. Maybe something got lost in translation or plummeted into the generation gap.

Or maybe Capela is truly convinced that the Rockets are the best team in the NBA. Let’s be honest, they’re closer than most of us had guessed. Newcomer Chris Paul has blended nicely with MVP candidate James Harden, and Houston is much deeper than it’s been in recent years. After beating the Warriors, the Rockets were 32-12, just 3½ games behind Kerr’s pacesetters.

And the Rockets were impressive Saturday. They were a little shorthanded that night, with Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green serving suspensions, but pounded the Warriors on the glass and pulled away late for the win.

Most NBA analysts have come to believe Houston and Golden State will meet in the Western Conference final, and that the series will be competitive. And now, thanks to Capela, it will be even more compelling.

Monday was the first opportunity the Warriors had to respond to Capela’s braggadocio. No one asked them about it. Ha, just kidding! Of course they did. Full disclosure: I did not attend the Warriors media session on Monday. But I listened to audio of the interviews.

When someone asked Durant about Capela’s comments, the All-Star initially took the high road.

“They beat us twice this year. They should feel confident,” Durant said. “And obviously we’re confident, and we feel like we’re the best team in the league and we could beat anybody as well. But we can be beat. We can be beat on any night if we don’t come to play.”

As if scripted by the Warriors public relations staff, right? But when the reporter followed up with an innocuous question about how Durant heard the clip, the lanky superstar could contain himself no longer.

“I mean, you hear that from guys like Capela,” Durant said. “Usually he’s catching the ball and laying it up from CP or James Harden. So his job is not as hard. I mean, when your job is that hard, you know you can’t just come out there and say (crap) like that.”

This would be what the kids call “shade.” Durant was dismissing Capela as both a source and an opponent. And he took it further.

“I don’t expect that from CP and James, Ariza and the rest of the guys, because they know how hard it is to come out there and do that every night,” Durant said. “Capela, I mean, catch and dunk every night, so it’s pretty easy for him.”

Few NBA players are in the same category as Chris Paul and James Harden. But Durant wants you to know that he doesn’t take Capela as seriously as Ariza and “the rest of the guys.” Capela is an up-and-coming frontcourt player who is averaging 14.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, and Durant made him sound like the fourth Ball brother. As shade goes, that’s an umbrella under a canopy beneath a giant oak tree.

The tastiest thing about Capela’s shot across the bow is that the Warriors and Rockets won’t meet again in the regular season. It would be anticlimactic if they tipped off in March, and the Warriors won by 18 and the foes dapped up after the game and the Rockets said respectful things in the locker room. But that won’t happen. If it’s indeed Warriors-Rockets in the Western Conference final, Durant and his teammates will have had four months to chew on Capela’s observations.

So bless him. The NBA season is a long one, and we are just entering the dog days of the campaign. Kerr admitted as much Monday. We could all use a little spice to get us to the postseason, and Capela just sprinkled some ground ghost pepper onto the plate.

The young man took a risk, I’ll say that. If the Rockets end up eliminating the Warriors, Capela will get credit for sparking them with his confidence. If the Warriors prevail, he’ll look like a boob. Either way, he made this series something closer to a true rivalry.

And by the way, the Warriors play the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics on Saturday. Are you listening, Kyrie Irving?

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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