LOS ANGELES — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has memories of the summer of 2020. Bad ones, like staying in LA and playing video games with his teammates. Overall, it’s like working out in private gyms to stay strong as the NBA world tries to find a way to keep its season going amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That time in his life and our world still has an impact. But one important memory is the closeness between him and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates that remain.
“I feel like we were the only team that stayed together during that COVID time,” said Caldwell-Pope to ESPN after scoring 17 points for the Denver Nuggets in a 119-108 victory last Saturday against the Lakers, giving his new team with a commanding 3-0 lead over his old team in the Western Conference finals.
“If we’re not together, we’re in the group chat. We’re really close.”
Led by LeBron James (second in 2020 MVP voting) and a defensive trio of Caldwell-Pope, Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso, the Lakers were the best team in the conference when play stopped in mid-March. .
And all of this was shown during their championship run in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, where they defeated the Nuggets in a hard-fought, six-game conference finals.
At the time, it felt like the first of many playoff matchups between the two teams. But through three games, the background story of this rematch is how different each has been in spending the two seasons since that playoff clash.
The Nuggets got stronger, deeper and healthier this season, while the Lakers spent a lot of energy trying to rebuild the team they had in 2020, it seems they ran out of gas at the right time.
Denver is very good at losing the turnover battle 12-5 like the Lakers did on Saturday. The Nuggets are too deep to send a double-team of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray every possession (although Murray’s 30-point first half certainly dampened confidence in that pick).
No player has shown the difference between the two franchises since their last conference finals matchup more than Caldwell-Pope. During his time in LA, he was often known — in the words of general manager Rob Pelinka — as “manna from heaven,” as signing him as a free agent helped pave the way for James to be acquired as free agent in 2018.
Caldwell-Pope’s defensive contributions and 3-point shot-making are often overlooked, and little was said when he was included in Russell Westbrook’s deal with the Washington Wizards in the summer of 2021.
For Denver, however, he is a critical role player. The team even sent him to the podium after Game 3 on Saturday.
Not only did he score 10 points in the third quarter as the Nuggets held off a frantic Lakers rally, his steal of D’Angelo Russell’s ill-advised crosscourt pass with 4:19 left in the period was one of the most devastating. games seen inside. Crypto.com Arena of all time.
“I learn a lot about this team every time we play,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have that tenacity, that dog mentality, where whether we’re up or down, we’re going to keep fighting and playing our game.”
After that steal, Caldwell-Pope handed the ball to Murray, who found a streaking Bruce Brown for an easy tip-in shot to extend Denver’s lead to 75-71. Brown, another key offseason acquisition for the Nuggets, continued to make his mark in this series with 15 points off the bench. Among them was a backbreaking 3-pointer with 7:02 minutes left in the game to extend the Nuggets’ lead to 99-94 and effectively end the Lakers’ rally.
Brown also felt it, turning to the Lakers bench using the “ice-water-in-my-veins” motion.
Russell first popularized that move during his first stint in LA (2015 to 2017), making Brown’s taunt a continuation of the trash talk he directed at Russell, who struggled mightily and is now minus- 53 in this series.
There will be strong discussion about Russell’s value to the Lakers this offseason, when he becomes a free agent. But that discussion should include the fact that he’s played in just 17 regular-season games for the Lakers since arriving in a three-team trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz — hardly enough time. to find a consistent and comfortable role within the offense.
That midseason deal, in addition to the trade for Rui Hachimura with the Wizards, was a big part of why the Lakers advanced to the conference finals after starting the season 2-10. The team finally has the shooters that line the floor around James and Davis and plenty of defenders to form the backbone of what has become the NBA’s best defense in the playoffs.
But “midseason” isn’t the best description. There were only 26 games left in the season when that trade was made and a giant mountain to climb, little time to form the kind of bonds Caldwell-Pope remembers from the 2020 team.
Denver, on the other hand, has a full season together, in addition to the five years that the core of Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
“This team is playoff-tested,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “It’s been five years in a row that we’ve advanced from the first round — except for last year when we lost to world champion Golden State. [Warriors].
“But most importantly, we are healthy.”
The Nuggets didn’t tear up their roster when Murray was out for more than a year with a knee injury and Porter Jr. They rallied around Jokic’s brilliance and used the time to add depth to additions like Caldwell-Pope and Brown.
The Lakers had a similar decision made when Davis and James missed a lot of time with various injuries the past two seasons. But they don’t have the luxury of patience, and have gutted their depth to trade for a third star (Westbrook), who they hope will fill in if one or both James and Davis fail in time.
That’s a failure they’ve spent the last year and a half trying to fix.
For most of the playoffs, it looks like they have. The new additions have been revealing, alternating stars in series victories over the Memphis Grizzlies and the Warriors.
But now there’s Caldwell-Pope, smiling back at the Lakers from the other side of the court, reminding them of the bad trade they thought they’d put behind them.