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Column: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope again proves his worth to the Lakers in Game 4 against the Heat

Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets to the rim past Miami Heat forward Jae Crowder during Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The theory that the Lakers signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2017 merely to build a good relationship with Rich Paul, the agent Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James have in common, is dredged out of the mud and brought to light every once in a while, mostly on the occasions when Caldwell-Pope’s shooting touch goes cold.

Signing Caldwell-Pope as a free agent was seen as the tax the Lakers had to pay for the chance to lure James to Los Angeles, a burden they could bear if it meant James would come here to lead them back to championship glory. James arrived in the summer of 2018, but Caldwell-Pope was largely considered a spare part, and his critics were plentiful early this season. His defensive game was solid, but he struggled to score, and fans regularly booed him at Staples Center.

Given a chance to start when the season resumed and Avery Bradley opted not to play in the NBA’s coronavirus-resistant Florida bubble, Caldwell-Pope struggled again and was 0-for-9 shooting from the field in the Lakers’ playoff-opening loss to Portland. His ride since then hasn’t always been smooth, but he has become a confident and effective player on a team that appreciates his work ethic and has never thought he drags them down.

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The assertive guard, who made two consecutive clutch baskets in the fourth quarter on Tuesday when Game 4 of the NBA Finals was still lurching back and forth between the Lakers and Miami, wasn’t a burden. He lifted the Lakers as they broke away from the persistent Heat for a 102-96 victory that put them one victory from their 17th NBA championship.

“At the end of the day, if you’re on the floor at crunch time, then I believe in you. Whoever is out on the floor with me I believe can make plays, and tonight was a case in point of KCP,” James said during postgame video interviews. “Stays ready. He works on his craft.”

Before Caldwell-Pope could enjoy one of the best moments of his career, he had to push himself through some difficult times. That was the case again on Sunday, when he had five points in a one-for-five shooting performance in the Game 3 loss that gave the Heat hope after the Lakers had won the first two games of the Finals. He has been through the lows often enough to know they don’t last forever, and that he must take the initiative to end them.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope raises his arm and jumps as he celebrates on court.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope celebrates a three-pointer in front of the Heat bench during the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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“Just staying with the game. You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow,” he said of his method for enduring rough stretches. “Drive, get a foul, go to the free-throw line and try to get a rhythm there, or just play the game. Make plays. Do other things.”

That philosophy gave him confidence to bounce back to score 10 points in the first quarter on Tuesday and finish with 15, including three three-point field goals. He has made 40 three-point shots on 104 attempts during the Lakers’ playoff run, tied for the second-most three-point shots made by a Laker in a single playoff season. Kobe Bryant made 49 three-pointers on 131 attempts in 23 games in 2010, and Trevor Ariza made 40 of 84 in 23 games in 2009.

Both 2009 and 2010 were championship seasons. The Lakers can end this season on Friday with another title, though Caldwell-Pope won’t indulge in looking ahead. His preparation won’t change.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ 102-96 win over the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

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“Like we approach the whole playoff series. It’s the next game for us,” he said. “We have the two days to rest, recovery, take care of bumps and bruises. But we just got to come out after these two days, come out with the same intensity we had [on Tuesday], not let up. We know we’ve got one game left and we don’t want to just set in and get lazy. We want to continue to put the pressure and stay aggressive.”

Being aggressive in the fourth quarter on Tuesday ensured he would connect with James on the two key plays that put the game beyond Miami’s grasp.

The Lakers had a 90-88 lead when Jimmy Butler, held well in check by the Lakers on Tuesday after his 40-point triple-double in Game 3, took a three from the corner and missed. James grabbed the rebound and brought the ball up, finding Caldwell-Pope for a three-pointer right in front of the Heat bench. Miami committed a shot clock violation on its next possession. James again found Caldwell-Pope, who faked his way past Duncan Robinson for a layup and a 95-88 Lakers lead.

The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 102-96 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Oct. 6, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Here are the best photos from the game.

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“Huge,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of Caldwell-Pope’s efforts. “He’s a confident young man. He’s been a huge part of our success this year for what he does on both ends of the floor.

“I was proud of him and Danny [Green] for having bounce-back games offensively. We need everybody to participate and contribute and we’re a team-first team. Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there, and proud of both those guys for stepping up. But KCP down the stretch, big guts to take the shots that he took and it was a huge five points, obviously.”

Frank Vogel’s decision to have Lakers forward Anthony Davis defend Jimmy Butler pays off as he makes presence felt in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Caldwell-Pope said he likes to run in transition in case James, Anthony Davis or Rajon Rondo can grab a rebound and get out. “I’m always sprinting to the corner and just being ready to shoot,” he said, and that was the case on that three-pointer.

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The layup came from a mismatch that resulted when two Miami defenders went to James. “Had a wide-open shot but he closed out, which they were doing all night, closed out hard, and gave me the lane down the middle,” Caldwell-Pope said.

Scoring doesn’t always come so easily for Caldwell-Pope, but he has considerable value on defense and as a supplementary scorer behind James and Davis. He has become a valued asset, not a tax grudgingly paid.


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