At shootaround on Thursday, hours ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers’ gritty six-point loss to the Miami Heat at the AmericanAirlines Arena, head coach Frank Vogel challenged Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to have his biggest scoring night of the season.
“I actually literally asked him to score 25 tonight,” Vogel said afterward.
KCP responded to his coach’s challenge and then some. In 39 minutes, he scored 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting, including 6-of-11 from three-point range. He was the only Lakers starter to post a positive plus/minus (+5).
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 9, 2021
Refreshingly, Caldwell-Pope—who has suffered through stretches of hesitancy this season—confidently let it fly. In the absence of Talen Horton-Tucker (suspension) and Kyle Kuzma (calf strain), on top of the injuries to LeBron James (high ankle sprain) and Anthony Davis (calf strain), the Lakers simply needed their shooting guard to … shoot more.
KCP was 🔥🔥 versus the Miami Heat:
— Lakers UK (@lalakersuk) April 9, 2021
“He’s answering the bell. I’m asking him to be super aggressive, looking to score,” Vogel added. “We want him to be that aggressive and again, this could be one of those silver lining things where we get more out of him offensively when those guys come back when he gets in this kind of rhythm.”
KCP credited his coach for encouraging him to seek buckets.
“I think it’s helped my game a lot. Like, coach just put me in opportunities to score the ball and to get shots up and I’m just taking full advantage of it,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Being aggressive like he said, trying to stay aggressive in every moment that I have the ball and just play, not worry about anything.”
Everything dropping for KCP, no matter how goofy pic.twitter.com/MHIzh48Ezj
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) April 9, 2021
In February and March, LA’s primary floor-spacer shot 32.3 percent from three. Last month, he averaged 7.1 points on 34.9 percent shooting in 13 games. In the first four games of April, though, KCP put up 11.3 points while draining 53.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
“The way he’s played the last couple of games is a great sign,” Vogel furthered. “When a guy goes through struggles, you never know exactly what the cause of it is…He came out of the gates with a bang to start the season for us. Went through a long stretch when he wasn’t shooting the ball well, but still maintained a 40 percent from three field goal percentage.”
KCP has been looking like his early season self in April
Dec/Jan: 47.8% from 3 (3.9 attempts per)
Feb/Mar: 33% from 3 (3.5 attempts per)
Apr: 53.8% from 3 (6.5 attempts per)
— pickuphoop (@pickuphoop) April 9, 2021
KCP was lights out in the bubble, and it’s possible he flips the switch again. But the Lakers would prefer to see him get his groove back before then, and this short-handed stretch presents an ideal opportunity for him to do so.
“He’s a guy that I trust,” Vogel added. “There’s going to be some ups and downs with him, and the way he’s played the last couple games hopefully builds some momentum going forward.”
In the 10 full games since James went down, the Lakers are 4-6, with four wins against lottery teams. They’ve defended at an elite level, but they are 29th in offensive rating.
“Just staying aggressive, hunting shots,” Caldwell-Pope described his recent play. “And playing defense like I always do, just to get my motor going, get out in transition where I’m best at, get some easy layups. Maybe transition threes here and there. But just playing my game and being aggressive with it.”
KCP isn’t the only Lakers wing to turn up the volume in recent days. Wesley Matthews has shot 18 threes over the past two games (making six), while Alex Caruso—who, like KCP, dramatically cooled off after a hot opening month—has drained eight of 11 triples in April.
Felt the Lakers did a far better job creating advantages/reading+reacting last night. Notice how many attempts different players look to generate for others after the initial pnr here.
Just really sound ball movement and pressures the defense to communicate/be on a string. pic.twitter.com/i6rVjB8BEb
— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) April 7, 2021
The Lakers began the week ranked 24th in 3-point percentage (35.1), 27th in threes made and 25th in attempts. Over the past two games, they’re 40-75 from downtown.
“How we played before with [James and Davis] on the court, it’s totally opposite now,” Dennis Schroder said last month. “…We’ve got to shoot more threes while they’re out. Me driving and kicking out for open threes. I think it’s just good offense and THT, Alex Caruso and all them guards who can get to the rim or in the paint then find the extra pass for open threes. That’s how we’ve got to play right now.”
Notably, the uptick in threes has come the same week as the team signed Ben McLemore, who was brought in specifically to add high-volume sharpshooting and wing athleticism off the bench. McLemore got 17 minutes on Wednesday and ran around semi-aimlessly. He was 0-of-3 from deep and finished with six points, including four free throws.
“Ben instantly elevates our ability to knock down 3s on the backside when double teams come and we can play the drive-and-kick game that the modern NBA is made on,” Vogel said.
In one sense, the timing is ironic: if LA’s regulars shoot like this, they don’t need McLemore.
Or, perhaps the last two games have revealed a side effect to the McLemore signing, beyond incorporating his skill set. It’s a small sample size, but maybe the McLemore signing has successfully lit a fire under the Lakers guards who don’t want to see their spot in the rotation diminished by a buyout addition, a la Marc Gasol.
On Saturday at the Barclays Center against the scorching Brooklyn Nets—for which Kuzma and Caruso (knee soreness) are questionable—the Lakers will need KCP, McLemore, and all the shooting they can get.