Nuggets take huge step toward playoffs
Jokic’s score on James “defining moment” of win
They all cleared out and let The Joker go to work against The King.
Nikola Jokic, the rising star of the Nuggets, against LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the player Jokic and countless others consider to be the best in basketball.
Jokic pounded the ball into the floor and lowered his shoulder as he threw his 6-foot-10 frame against the 250-pound mass of James. Jokic subtly faked a spin one way, then turned the other way. The soft hook shot dropped through the net Wednesday night and the Pepsi Center exploded.
“That’s a defining moment,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “With the whole crowd watching, anticipating what’s going to happen, it was a heavyweight fight. I’m sure Nikola will be showing that to his grandkids many years from now.”
The defining play for Jokic was part of what could be considered the defining win of the season for the Nuggets.
Six players scored at least 16 points for Denver as the Nuggets routed the defending NBA champion Cavaliers 126-113 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 19,718.
Sure, there were plenty of Cavaliers fans in the building. But the Nuggets contingent provided a possible preview of how it will shake the building should the home team hang on in its pursuit of a playoff spot. The Nuggets (3437) increased their lead over Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference to 1K games.
“This was the most important game of the season right now,”
said Gary Harris, who led the Nuggets with 21 points. “We’re in the playoff race, and the next one is going to be just as important.”
The nature of a tight playoff race is that every game carries heightened significance, but the Nuggets took a few minutes to enjoy beating the Cavaliers.
“It means were going to the Finals,” Malone joked, adding that the team was “ecstatic” in the locker room.
Kenneth Faried was the difference in the second half, shifting the tide with his trademark energy. The Cavaliers had turned up the defense to trim a lead that was as large as 20 points to 86-81 midway through the third quarter.
Faried then scored seven points in less than two minutes by running to the rim. Throw in a 3-pointer from Harris and the Nuggets had pushed the lead back to 13 points.
“He really just came in and changed the game,” Nuggets big man Mason Plumlee said of Faried.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” Faried said. “Tonight we came out with the energy we needed.”
The Nuggets cruised from there in a game that didn’t lack for highlights.
Jamal Murray provided the first big batch of them for Denver. The Nuggets led 41-40 with 8:54 left in the second quarter. Just 83 seconds later, Murray had drained three 3-pointers and the Nuggets were up 50-40.
The Nuggets hit 9-of-16 shots (56.3 percent) from 3-point range in the first half, with their looks created by constant movement and motion. The Denver offense was a blur of drives and cuts, extra passes and quick-release jumpers. In short, the defending champs had no answer for anything the Nuggets threw at them in the first half.
Cleveland, the NBA’s second-best 3- point shooting team, was able to stay in shouting distance by connecting from long range. The Cavs hit 15-of-37 3-pointers, rescuing themselves with a big shot each time it seemed the Nuggets would run away.
Kyrie Irving scored 33 points and hit 4-of-5 3-pointers, nearly lifting the Cavs to a lead after their big deficit.
But the Nuggets simply wouldn’t stop scoring. Will Barton scored 20 points off the bench. Faried finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. Jokic had 16 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
The ball kept moving. And it kept landing in the basket.
“We’ve been playing with a certain type of confidence,” Harris said. “I feel like we’re just clicking right now.”
Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried scores on a dunk during the first quarter of Wednesday night’s 126-113 victory over the Cavaliers at the Pepsi Center.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James soars to dunk for two of his 18 points Wednesday night.