Pistons' Caldwell-Pope draws notice with defense
Oklahoma City — In the second quarter on Friday night, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook waited on the right wing and made a quick cut to the rim, getting away from Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Westbrook took a bounce pass from Kevin Durant and had to go under the rim and spin a reverse layup around Andre Drummond for the score. The highlight-reel play exemplified the degree of difficulty Westbrook needed to get free for an open shot against Caldwell-Pope.
It's becoming a common occurrence.
Several elite guards are finding that points aren't coming easy against Caldwell-Pope — and he is emerging as one of the premier defenders in the NBA.
The list includes Golden State's Stephen Curry, Miami's Dwyane Wade and now Westbrook. The performance against the Warriors was deceptive, because Curry had 22 points — but that's his second-lowest total of the season and it was his lowest shooting percentage in a game this season (7-of-18).
Wade had a season-low two points, on 1-of-9 shooting. Westbrook finished with 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting in 29 minutes Friday. But what was more telling was the rough night overall that Westbrook had, with 11 turnovers before he fouled out.
"KCP did a good job on (Westbrook) and worked really hard. That was one of the positives for us," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He does a really good job against guards playing off the dribble. Tonight he was outstanding defensively."
The Thunder won, 103-87, but Caldwell-Pope helped neutralize Westbrook, keeping him well below his averages of 28 points, 7.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists.
Teammate Reggie Jackson lauded Caldwell-Pope's defensive job on Westbrook, but said it's become the new normal for the Pistons' stopper.
"Phenomenal. That kid is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league — KCP locks up," Jackson said. "It's not a fluke. What KCP does on defense night in and night out is not a fluke.
"Everybody overlooks what he does for us. He frustrated me sometimes in pickup (games) in the summer. You find out that it's real — he loves doing this; he loves defending."
It's yet another impressive line in what's becoming a resume of impressive outings for the third-year guard from Georgia.
Although many Pistons fans wanted them to draft Michigan's Trey Burke instead of Caldwell-Pope, it's looking like then-president Joe Dumars made the right choice.
There were flashes in the first two seasons, but Caldwell-Pope is using some of these defensive showings as a coming-out party for the rest of the league. Doing it against Westbrook and Curry is sure to draw some attention around the league.
"It was a challenge for me," Caldwell-Pope said. "I stepped up and took the challenge and I did a pretty good job."
When he's able to focus on the opposition's best perimeter scorer, it helps take some of the pressure off Andre Drummond inside and Jackson — both of whom were in foul trouble against the Thunder.
It's a skill that Caldwell-Pope has honed in the past year or so. Jackson said it's not so much studying film, but remembering past matchups against some of the elite players and using what he learned to sharpen his game plan against them.
"Experience is the best teacher. He plays against these guys and figures out their tendencies," Jackson said. "He's somebody who really studies this game.
"It's a combination of watching film and he's competed against them before and he's built confidence that he can go out there and do that. He's a special player."
Pistons at Nets
Tip-off: 6 Sunday, Barclays Center, New York
Outlook: The Nets started 0-7 and have lost three of their last four. Brook Lopez (20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds) will be a challenge for Drummond inside.