Nuggets take huge step to­ward play­offs

Jo­kic’s score on James “defin­ing mo­ment” of win

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider

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.”

John Leyba, The Denver Post

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.

John Leyba, The Denver Post

The Cleve­land Cav­a­liers’ LeBron James soars to dunk for two of his 18 points Wed­nes­day night.

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