There’s a running joke among the Denver Nuggets coaching staff when it comes to the Defensive Player of the Game Chain, a postgame award given to the player who Michael Malone and his assistants believe was the team’s most impactful defender in that night’s win.
“He could get the chain every night,” Malone said earlier this year about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “We should actually name it the KCP DPOG and give it to everybody else.”
That’s how rock-solid of a defender Caldwell-Pope has been this season. No one on the Nuggets has been steadier this year on the defensive end of the floor than the 10-year veteran who the Nuggets acquired last summer in a trade that made almost too much sense on paper. But for everything that Caldwell-Pope flashed this year across the 76 games he appeared in, it was never really about the regular season with him.
He hit six 3s in an October win over the Thunder. Cool. He went for 20 points in a December victory over the Hornets. Great. He tallied four steals in a January triumph over the Pelicans. Awesome.
With Caldwell-Pope, who’s the only current Nuggets player that’s won an NBA Championship, it was always about this time of year.
“We didn’t get him for the regular season,” said Malone.
The Nuggets’ 109-80 blowout win over the Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round series was the most dominant playoff win over the Nikola Jokic era. Full stop. Denver outscored Minnesota 32-14 in a third quarter for the ages that saw the Timberwolves record more turnovers (6) than made baskets (5). Overall, it was the third-fewest points that the Nuggets have allowed in a playoff game in franchise history.
It was a statement win. It was how a No. 1 seed should look. It was the type of win that can quiet Denver’s fiercest doubters for a couple of days, except those who reside on the east coast and didn’t stay up on a school night to watch the back-to-back MVP put in work. Nuggets-Timberwolves tipped at approximately 8:50 pm MT.
Per usual, Caldwell-Pope was at the center of the defensive stranglehold Denver put on Minnesota.
He’s such a skilled defender when he’s guarding one pass away. You rarely see Caldwell-Pope get beat backdoor from the wing.
“Perimeter defensive containment.” You’ve heard Malone recite those three words countless times over the last several years, always out of frustration. Throughout the Jokic era, the Nuggets haven’t had a guard that can contain dribble penetration and shut down opposing drivers like Caldwell-Pope can.
This Timberwolves possession ends in a Kyle Anderson 3, but watch the full-court pressure that Caldwell-Pope applies. He gives Mike Conley zero room to breathe.
“It was a stellar defensive performance,” Malone said postgame while noting that Sunady’s DPOG Chain went to the entire team for the first time this season.
Of course, it could have gone to Caldwell-Pope who recorded a game-high four deflections and held Anthony Edwards, one of his primary assignments, to 6-15 shooting.
And then there’s his offense.
After slumping through the Nuggets’ post-All-Star break stretch of the season from beyond the arc, Caldwell-Pope returned to form in Game 1. He shot 3-6 from 3-point range and 6-11 from the field overall for 15 points. All three of his made triples came from the corners. Caldwell-Pope was one of six Nuggets players to score in double-figures.
It never feels like Caldwell-Pope is doing too much on offense. He picks his spots carefully. If Denver’s offense is on life support — a rare occurrence when Jokic is on the floor — Caldwell-Pope might dribble into and swish a mid-range pull-up. But he’s never going to hesitate from 3. In transition, he’s composed and calculated. He never looks rushed.
He’s a championship-level role player.
“I think he’s a very mature player,” Michael Porter Jr. said.
It turned out that an experienced, battle-tested, 3-and-D shooting guard was the exact type of player that the Nuggets needed to complete their dream starting five around Jokic. That’s who Caldwell-Pope has been throughout his entire career, and acquiring him last offseason felt like an absolute homerun deal for Denver at the time.
That’s exactly what it’s been.
“I don’t think there’s another dude that you could put alongside us four dudes, me, Aaron, Jamal and Jok that would mold (together) better than us,” Porter said of Caldwell-Pope. “It doesn’t matter if he gets 12 shots that night, four shots that night, he’s going to still play the right way. He’s going to make the extra pass. He’s going to play defense.”