Caldwell-Pope’s championship pedigree proving to be difference-maker for Nuggets

Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) looks towards his bench during the first half of Game 2 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

DENVER — The Denver Nuggets had all the ingredients for an NBA Finals run this season — Nikola Jokic’s all-around greatness, Jamal Murray’s sweet ball handling, Michael Porter Jr.’s board crashing and arc accuracy, Aaron Gordon’s above-the-rim brilliance.

The only thing missing was big-game experience.

Enter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers inside the NBA bubble in 2020.

The Nuggets acquired the sharp-shooting swingman along with veteran guard Ish Smith from the Washington Wizards last July in exchange for Monte Morris and Will Barton.

KCP, the quiet-until-he-needs-to-be player with a lethal outside shot, has been the calming presence on this squad that has sent Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis and LeBron James on early vacations and has designs on adding either Jimmy Butler or Jayson Tatum to that mix when the NBA Finals finally get here June 1.

“He’s just the ultimate leader, ultimate professional, comes in every day and works extremely hard, holds everyone accountable,” said fellow 2022-23 addition Bruce Brown Jr. “But he is the only one on this team who has won a championship. He knows what it takes and what we need to do. So, we gotta listen to that guy.”

Teammates and coaches say KCP isn’t so much in your face as he’s in your ear, dispensing advice, tips, guidance, encouragement and caution along the way as the Nuggets navigate a championship road they’ve never been down.

“I do it vocally, just talking, bringing that championship mentality that I have to my team now,” Caldwell-Pope said, “and just tell them in moments like if they go on a run, it’s not the end of the day. Let’s just get back to doing what we do. Like I say, it’s all about being patient, being ready and defending.”

The Nuggets’ four-game sweep of the Lakers secured the franchise’s first Western Conference title and sent the Nuggets to their first NBA Finals appearance in their history and to their first championship series since they lost to Julius Erving and the New York Nets 4-2 in the ABA’s last season in 1976.

Those two teams, along with the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, joined the NBA in 1976-77 when the ABA disbanded. All the others reached the NBA Finals long before the Nuggets, who are appearing in their first league championship in their 47-year history.

They might not have made it without KCP, whose on-the-court contributions are what Nuggets superstar Jokic appreciates the most.

Caldwell-Pope was an integral part of the Lakers’ championship run in 2020, averaging 10.7 points and starting in all of LA’s 21 playoff games. He helped the Lakers beat the Nuggets in five games for the Western Conference title in the bubble.

What he’s brought the Nuggets isn’t just that championship pedigree but performance, Jokic said Saturday.

“Yes, he won a championship, but the best thing about KCP is he knows exactly what to do and where to be,” Jokic said. “And he’s doing that in the first game, the 70th game, the playoff game, Finals game, whatever game, he always does what he’s supposed to do and I think that’s the best way to describe him.”

Whether he’s doling out tips or quietly going about his business, KCP has been a big part of the Nuggets’ longest playoff drive in their history.

He’s averaged 11.7 points a game, up from 10.8 in the regular season, and 3.2 rebounds, up from 2.7, while reducing his turnovers from 1.1 to 0.7.

He’s turned in some of his best work these playoffs on defense.

“I feel like I’m always on a tough matchup,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I pride myself on my defense. I look forward to being able to just get stops.”

Which is why he said when the Nuggets opened the playoffs after a week’s rest — two days shorter than their layoff before the NBA Finals begin Thursday night — that defense would be the primary driver to hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The Nuggets sent James and the Lakers packing when Murray tied up the Lakers star on a drive to the basket and Gordon blocked the shot, securing Denver’s 113-111 win in Game 4 for the franchise’s first playoff series sweep in its history.

After their 25-point blowout of the Suns in Phoenix in Round 2, Jokic said the Nuggets were so focused they looked like a championship team. Then he caught himself: “Well, I guess I don’t know how a championship team looks. But I think that was how it’s supposed to look.”

Caldwell-Pope is the only Nugget who knows what winning an NBA ring feels like.

“Everybody wants one,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s the goal, to become a champion in this league. It’s one of the hardest things to do.”

He’s told his teammates that not only will it forever define them, it’ll forever change them.

“It changed me a lot, just as far as me being that leader that I am now,” he said. “And just being able to be focused in the moments as a professional and as a leader, you know, get my teammates focused and ready to play.”

It’s a feeling he wants them all to experience in the coming days.

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