For the first month of the season, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was ice cold. Among players on the Lakers to attempt even one 3-pointer, he was dead last on the roster in efficiency, making just five of his first 22 attempts from deep.
After two relatively underwhelming years in purple and gold, fans were at the point where they’d had enough. Caldwell-Pope became an online punching bag, to the point that teammate Dwight Howard started going back at Instagram trolls who were attacking his teammate. The team rallied around Caldwell-Pope, and coincidentally or not, that was when things clicked for him.
So when Caldwell-Pope shot just 5-18 from distance in the Lakers’ first eight games in the NBA restart, and followed it up by going 0-9 (and 0-5 from three) in his first playoff game and purple and gold, head coach Frank Vogel had a message for him.
“I told him after Game 1 that you started the season this way,” Vogel said. “All he did was go on to shoot 40% over the next four months by remaining confident.”
The reminder seemed to work, because much like Caldwell-Pope shot a team-high 41.2% from the night that Howard came to his defense until the season was paused for the coronavirus pandemic, he completely snapped out of his shooting funk in Game 2 for the Lakers, scoring 16 points while making four of the six threes he attempted (66.7%) to help L.A. blow out the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-88, even up their first-round playoff series at 1-1.
Afterwards, Caldwell-Pope admitted that he was “just trying to forget Game 1,” but it’s clear his attempt at selective amnesia didn’t totally work, because he definitely still remembers. He just knows he wanted to be better in his second postseason game as a Laker.
“I know I shot the ball terribly. I won’t even say bad,” Caldwell-Pope told reporters after the game. “I’m a shooter, and shooters shoot. I came out with the mindset (that) I’m going to knock down shots.”
His teammates noticed.
“From the beginning of the game, it was great to see KCP have no conscience about his shot, to get it going from the outside,” said LeBron James.
He certainly did that, and in the process helped the Lakers go from historically bad from three in their first game (5-32, 15.6%) to setting a franchise playoff record from deep (14-38, 37.2%). That’s only about league-average 3-point shooting in 2020 — it’s been a long time since the Lakers were in the postseason — but for a team that defends this hard and just needs to space the floor a bit for its two stars, it’s the difference between a seven-point loss and a word-destroying victory. With the extra room inside, Anthony Davis was able to go to work, becoming the first Laker ever (and just the fifth player in the shot-clock era) to score at least 30 points and grab 10 rebounds in less than 30 minutes of playing time.
Will Caldwell-Pope be able to shoot as well as he did during every playoff game he plays for Los Angeles? Probably not. But what last night showed was that the Lakers don’t necessarily need him to. They just need their team to shoot respectably from distance, and let their two stars take care of the rest.
But with that said, when Caldwell-Pope is the one making the defense pay for sending extra bodies at James and Davis, he will get the credit for all the other things he does to help his team, too, from the energy he brings to the way he chases around opposing guards defensively.
“I’m really happy for KCP,” Vogel said. “Both games he played extremely well. Game 2 he shot the ball well. Game 1 he didn’t. But both games he played really well. He’s a huge part of what we’ve done, he exemplifies our ‘play harder than our opponent’ mindset. He was great tonight.”
And if this is anything like a mini version of the way Caldwell-Pope has started every season he’s played for the Lakers by coming out of the gate a bit slow before playing effective basketball the rest of the way, last night probably won’t be the only one where he’s great for the team.