LOS ANGELES — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has recollections of the summer time of 2020. Fuzzy ones, similar to staying in L.A. and taking part in video video games together with his teammates. Normal ones, similar to understanding at non-public gyms to remain in form because the NBA world tried to determine a technique to proceed its season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That point in his life and our world nonetheless impacts us. However one vital reminiscence is how shut he and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates stayed.
“I really feel like we had been the one crew that stayed collectively throughout that COVID time,” Caldwell-Pope informed ESPN after scoring 17 factors for the Denver Nuggets in Saturday’s 119-108 win in opposition to the Lakers, which gave his new crew a commanding 3-0 lead over his outdated crew within the Western Convention finals.
“If we weren’t with one another, we had been within the group chat. We had been actually shut.”
Led by LeBron James (second in 2020 MVP voting) and a defensive trio of Caldwell-Pope, Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso, the Lakers had been the perfect crew within the convention when play stopped in mid-March.
And all of that confirmed throughout their championship run contained in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, the place they beat the Nuggets in a hard-fought, five-game convention finals.
On the time, it felt like it will be the primary of many playoff battles between the 2 groups. However by means of three video games, the background story of this rematch has been how in a different way every has spent the 2 seasons since that playoff conflict.
The Nuggets have gotten stronger, deeper and more healthy this season, whereas the Lakers have expended a lot power attempting to recreate the crew that they had in 2020, they appear to be operating out of fuel at precisely the mistaken time.
Denver is simply too good to lose a turnover battle 12-5, because the Lakers did Saturday, and count on to beat them. The Nuggets are too deep to ship double-teams at Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray every possession (though Murray’s 30-point first half definitely strained the credulity of that selection).
No participant exemplifies the change between the 2 franchises since their final convention finals matchup greater than Caldwell-Pope. Throughout his time in L.A., he was principally identified — within the phrases of common supervisor Rob Pelinka — as “manna from heaven,” as a result of signing him as a free agent helped pave the best way to land James as a free agent in 2018.
Caldwell-Pope’s defensive contributions and 3-point shot-making had been typically taken with no consideration, and little or no was stated when he was included within the Russell Westbrook cope with the Washington Wizards in the summertime of 2021.
For Denver, although, he’s a important function participant. The crew even despatched him to the rostrum after Saturday’s Recreation 3.
Not solely did he rating 10 factors within the third quarter because the Nuggets held off a livid Lakers rally, his steal of D’Angelo Russell’s ill-advised crosscourt cross with 4:19 remaining within the interval was one of the crucial deflating performs seen inside Crypto.com Enviornment all season.
“I study lots about this crew each time we play,” Caldwell-Pope stated. “We now have that resilience, that canine mentality, the place irrespective of if we’re up or down, we’ll proceed to battle and play our sport.”
After that steal, Caldwell-Pope handed the ball off to Murray, who discovered a streaking Bruce Brown for a simple tip-in to increase Denver’s result in 75-71. Brown, the opposite key offseason acquisition for the Nuggets, continued to make his mark on this sequence with 15 factors off the bench. Amongst them was a backbreaking 3-pointer with 7:02 remaining to stretch the Nuggets’ result in 99-94 and successfully finish the Lakers’ rally.
Brown sensed it too, turning to the Lakers bench with an “ice water in my veins” movement.
Russell was the primary to popularize that gesture throughout his first stint in L.A. (2015 to 2017), making Brown’s taunt a continuation of the trash speak he has directed at Russell, who has struggled mightily and is now minus-53 on this sequence.
There can be a sturdy dialogue about Russell’s worth to the Lakers this offseason, when he can be a free agent. However that dialogue ought to embrace the truth that he performed in solely 17 regular-season video games for the Lakers since coming over in a three-team commerce with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz — hardly sufficient time to discover a constant and cozy function throughout the offense.
That midseason deal, along with the commerce for Rui Hachimura with the Wizards, is a big a part of why the Lakers have superior to the convention finals after beginning the season 2-10. The crew lastly had shooters to area the ground round James and Davis and versatile defenders to kind the spine of what is grow to be the NBA’s greatest protection within the playoffs.
However “midseason” shouldn’t be the perfect description. There have been solely 26 video games remaining within the season when that commerce was made and a large hill to climb, little time to kind the form of bonds Caldwell-Pope remembers from that 2020 crew.
Denver, however, has had all season to come back collectively, along with the 5 years the core of Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have been collectively.
“This crew is playoff-tested,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone stated. “That is 5 years in a row we have superior out of the primary spherical — besides final yr, after we misplaced to the eventual world champion in Golden State.
“However most significantly, we’re wholesome.”
The Nuggets did not tear up their roster when Murray was misplaced for over a yr with a knee damage and Porter missed time following again surgical procedure. They rallied across the brilliance of Jokic and used the time to get deeper with additions similar to Caldwell-Pope and Brown.
The Lakers had an analogous resolution to make when each Davis and James missed in depth time with numerous accidents the previous two seasons. However they didn’t have the luxurious of endurance, and broke up their depth to commerce for a 3rd star (Westbrook), who they hoped would fill in when James or Davis (or each) missed time.
That was a failure the Lakers have spent the previous yr and a half attempting to repair.
Nuggets take commanding 3-0 lead with one other clutch Jamal Murray efficiency
Jamal Murray tallies 37 factors, seven rebounds and 6 assists because the Nuggets take a 3-0 sequence lead over the Lakers.
For many of the playoffs, it appeared like that they had. The brand new additions had been revelatory, taking star turns all through sequence wins in opposition to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Warriors.
However now there’s Caldwell-Pope, smiling again on the Lakers from the opposite aspect of the courtroom, reminding them of the ill-fated commerce they thought they’d put behind them.