Lakers reminded of ill-fated 2021 trade as they trail Nuggets 3-0

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Sunday, May 21, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has memories of the summer of 2020. Fuzzy ones, such as staying in L.A. and playing video games with his teammates. General ones, such as working out at private gyms to stay in shape as the NBA world tried to figure out a way to continue its season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That time in his life and our world still affects us. But one important memory is how close he and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates stayed.

"I feel like we were the only team that stayed together during that COVID time," Caldwell-Pope told ESPN after scoring 17 points for the Denver Nuggets in Saturday's 119-108 win against the Lakers, which gave his new team a commanding 3-0 lead over his old team in the Western Conference finals.

"If we weren't with each other, we were in the group chat. We were 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 had been the best team in the conference when play stopped in mid-March.

And all of that showed during their championship run inside the NBA's Orlando Bubble, where they beat the Nuggets in a hard-fought, five-game conference finals.

At the time, it felt like it would be the first of many playoff battles between the two teams. But through three games, the background story of this rematch has been how differently each has spent the two seasons since that playoff clash.

The Nuggets have gotten stronger, deeper and healthier this season, while the Lakers have expended so much energy trying to recreate the team they had in 2020, they seem to be running out of gas at exactly the wrong time.

Denver is too good to lose a turnover battle 12-5, as the Lakers did Saturday, and expect to beat them. The Nuggets are too deep to send double-teams at Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray each possession (although Murray's 30-point first half certainly strained the credulity of that choice).

No player exemplifies the change between the two franchises since their last conference finals matchup more than Caldwell-Pope. During his time in L.A., he was mostly known -- in the words of general manager Rob Pelinka -- as "manna from heaven," because signing him as a free agent helped pave the way to land James as a free agent in 2018.

Caldwell-Pope's defensive contributions and 3-point shot-making were often taken for granted, and very little was said when he was included in the Russell Westbrook deal with the Washington Wizards in the summer of 2021.

For Denver, though, he is a critical role player. The team even sent him to the podium after Saturday's Game 3.

Not only did he score 10 points in the third quarter as the Nuggets held off a furious Lakers rally, his steal of D'Angelo Russell's ill-advised crosscourt pass with 4:19 remaining in the period was one of the most deflating plays seen inside Arena all season.

"I learn a lot about this team every time we play," Caldwell-Pope said. "We have that resilience, that dog mentality, where no matter if we're up or down, we're going to continue to fight and play our game."

After that steal, Caldwell-Pope handed the ball off to Murray, who found a streaking Bruce Brown for an easy tip-in to extend Denver's lead to 75-71. Brown, the other key offseason acquisition for the Nuggets, continued to make his mark on this series with 15 points off the bench. Among them was a backbreaking 3-pointer with 7:02 remaining to stretch the Nuggets' lead to 99-94 and effectively end the Lakers' rally.

Brown sensed it too, turning to the Lakers bench with an "ice water in my veins" motion.

Russell was the first to popularize that gesture during his first stint in L.A. (2015 to 2017), making Brown's taunt a continuation of the trash talk he has directed at Russell, who has struggled mightily and is now minus-53 in this series.

There will be a robust discussion about Russell's value to the Lakers this offseason, when he will be a free agent. But that discussion should include the fact that he played in only 17 regular-season games for the Lakers since coming over 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, is a large part of why the Lakers have advanced to the conference finals after starting the season 2-10. The team finally had shooters to space the floor around James and Davis and versatile defenders to form the backbone of what's become the NBA's best defense in the playoffs.

But "midseason" is not the best description. There were only 26 games remaining in the season when that trade was made and a giant hill to climb, little time to form the kind of bonds Caldwell-Pope remembers from that 2020 team.

Denver, on the other hand, has had all season to come together, in addition to the five years the core of Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have been together.

"This team is playoff-tested," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "This is five years in a row we've advanced out of the first round -- except last year, when we lost to the eventual world champion inGolden State.

"But most importantly, we're healthy."

The Nuggets didn't tear up their roster when Murray was lost for over a year with a knee injury and Porter missed time following back surgery. They rallied around the brilliance of Jokic and used the time to get deeper with additions such as Caldwell-Pope and Brown.

The Lakers had a similar decision to make when both Davis and James missed extensive time with various injuries the past two seasons. But they did not have the luxury of patience, and broke up their depth to trade for a third star (Westbrook), who they hoped would fill in when James or Davis (or both) missed time.

That was a failure the Lakers have spent the past year and a half trying to fix.

For most of the playoffs, it seemed like they had. The new additions had been revelatory, taking star turns throughout series wins against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Warriors.

But now there is Caldwell-Pope, smiling back at the Lakers from the other side of the court, reminding them of the ill-fated trade they thought they'd put behind them.

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