Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

KCP gives Nuggets championsh­ip pedigree

- Arnie Stapleton

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 sharpshoot­ing 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 finally 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 first Western Conference title and sent the Nuggets to their first NBA Finals appearance in their history and to their first 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 first 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 five 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 first 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 playoffs 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 playoffs 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 first 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,” CaldwellPo­pe 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 define 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.

 ?? RON CHENOY/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope reacts during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers on May 16.
RON CHENOY/USA TODAY SPORTS Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope reacts during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers on May 16.

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