FOX Sports NBA Writer
DENVER – After Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished his interview on the podium following Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, two people greeted him: LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Davis lamented Caldwell-Pope making a right-handed finger roll over him with just under two minutes left the Denver Nuggets up by three points, 127-124. “I’m digging you going left,” Davis said, flashing a grin. “And then you come this way and do that s—, man.”
James gave Caldwell-Pope a warm hug and simply said, ‘What’s up, man?”
Three years ago, the three of them won a championship together in the Orlando bubble. Now they’re in opposing locker rooms in the penultimate round of the playoffs, with Caldwell-Pope being instrumental in leading the Nuggets to a 132-126 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, finishing with 21 points on 9-for-17 shooting, three 3-pointers, two rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“They’re my brothers, man,” Caldwell-Pope told FOX Sports. “At the end of the day, we’re brothers off this court. But right now, on the court, in this series we’ll save that brotherly stuff until after the series.”
Still, Caldwell-Pope acknowledged he’s overjoyed seeing James in a position to compete for his fifth ring.
After all, in October, he wondered if James’ greatness was being squandered in the twilight of his career. “I don’t think I see that spark in Bron,” Caldwell-Pope told ESPN following the Lakers’ 2-10 start. “So, hopefully he can get it back.”
When asked if Caldwell-Pope feels differently about James now, he chuckled.
“He’s gotten it back,” Caldwell-Pope told FOX Sports. “I feel like it happened after the trade deadline. Just seeing them guys play, I watched pretty much every game. He’s just relentless. Just seeing him continuing to do what he’s doing at his age and the years that he’s been in the league, it’s truly amazing.”
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There’s still a lot of love between Caldwell-Pope, James and Davis, who spent nearly 100 days together in the bubble.
Together, they won the Lakers their first championship in a decade despite a season that included Kobe Bryant’s death, the league being paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and then restarted at a campus in Walt Disney World, away from their homes and families.
During that run, Caldwell-Pope was a dogged defender, a hustler and a guy who could provide the Lakers with scoring bursts.
But after four seasons with the Lakers, they dealt him to the Washington Wizards as part of a deal to acquire Russell Westbrook in August 2021. The Nuggets then acquired him last July.
Caldwell-Pope still thinks very highly of the Lakers’ 2020 championship team. In fact, when asked if thinks that team or the current iteration of the Lakers is better, he didn’t hesitate.
“Ooooh, I’m going with us,” he said. “For sure.”
But things have more than worked out for Caldwell-Pope, who has proved to be essential for the Nuggets.
This postseason, Caldwell-Pope is averaging 10.5 points on 47.7 percent shooting from the field, 39.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game.
In Game 6 of the conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns, he had 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting, five rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot and two steals.
And on Tuesday, he finished with the second-highest plus-minus rating of anyone on the court (16), trailing only Michael Porter Jr. (20).
Said Nikola Jokic: “KCP is a champion, he’s a winner, he knows what to do. He’s a professional. He’s vocal, he’s tough. So he knows what is his role. And he’s doing it the best in the world.”
Added coach Michael Malone: “What I’m seeing is a 10-year vet who has won a world championship and who is built for moments like these.”
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Caldwell-Pope believes his time with the Lakers was instrumental to his growth. In fact, he credits James for teaching him a lot.
“Just how to be a leader, how to get my team in certain situations and how to prepare my team,” Caldwell-Pope told FOX Sports. “I’ve learned a lot from him, just by watching him and playing with him.”
On Tuesday, James finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and one blocked shot. Davis had 40 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Together, they cut the Lakers’ 21-point deficit to just three points with 1:12 left.
Caldwell-Pope intimately knows what his team is up against this series.
That’s why as soon as he took the court Tuesday, he looked at the guys who he calls his brothers as his enemies.
And until his team wins three more games, that’s not going to change.
“Before we even jumped ball, I was walking into them, bumping them, not saying nothing,” Caldwell-Pope told FOX Sports. “It’s war. It’s all love and war at the end of the day.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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