For­ward Ken­neth Faried re­turns from in­jury and could play a key role in play­off pur­suit.

For­ward re­cently re­turned from back in­jury

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider Nick Kos­mider: 303-954-1516, nkos­mider@den­ver­post.com or @nick­kos­mider

The run is al­ways com­ing in the NBA. In a league where big leads can dis­ap­pear in a blink, the Nuggets knew they would have to hold off a charge from the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Wed­nes­day night.

LeBron James had just helped the Cleve­land Cava­liers cut a 20point lead to five, his tom­a­hawk dunk off a lob from J.R. Smith trim­ming the deficit to 86-81 mid­way through the third quar­ter.

The Nuggets ap­peared on the ropes. Then Ken­neth Faried checked in and pushed back.

The en­er­getic for­ward, re­cently shelved for three weeks be­cause of a back in­jury, has quickly showed the Nuggets what they were miss­ing. Faried on Wed­nes­day ac­com­plished the feat of wrestling the mo­men­tum away from the lo­co­mo­tive train that is James and Kyrie Irv­ing. Faried’s play in the third quar­ter, in which he scored seven points in two min­utes, helped turn the tide in one of the Nuggets’ big­gest wins of the sea­son.

The 126-113 vic­tory gave the Nuggets a 1K-game lead over Port­land in the race for the eighth and fi­nal play­off spot in the West­ern Con­fer­ence.

“Ken­neth was phe­nom­e­nal,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “His abil­ity to be prop­erly spaced and fin­ish around the bas­ket and move — when we pass and cut and share the ball, we be­come a team that’s re­ally hard to guard.”

The play that will long be re­mem­bered from Wed­nes­day’s vic­tory came when Nikola Jo­kic backed down James in the third quar­ter, fin­ish­ing with a soft hook shot over the four-time MVP. But it may have been Faried’s big­gest high­light that meant the most. Af­ter the dunk by James, Faried caught the ball at the top of the key on the Nuggets’ next pos­ses­sion and passed it to Gary Har­ris on the right wing. Faried fol­lowed his pass and sold the idea that he was go­ing to set a screen for Har­ris on Smith.

In­stead, Faried cut straight the bas­ket, re­ceived a crisp bounce pass from Har­ris and flushed an em­phatic dunk over the out­stretched arms of Kevin Love and Tris­tan Thomp­son. The Nuggets were off to the races. It was the kind of mo­men­tum-grab­bing play they will need from Faried if they are go­ing to hold off the hard­charg­ing Trail Blaz­ers.

“My team­mates found me in good po­si­tion, and they have trust in me,” Faried said. “My team­mates try to find me when they’re in trou­ble, and I can make those easy passes or fin­ish over the top of peo­ple.”

“He was not shy­ing away from that chal­lenge,” Malone said of Faried. “He took it on and em­braced that op­por­tu­nity.”

The Nuggets lead the NBA in re­bound­ing per­cent­age (53.6), a mea­sure of avail­able re­bounds a team col­lects, and in of­fen­sive re­bound­ing per­cent­age at 28.2. When Faried was out, though, the Nuggets dipped slightly, par­tic­u­larly on the of­fen­sive glass. In four games since his re­turn — all against win­ning teams — the Nuggets have a plus30 re­bound­ing edge over­all.

The na­ture of his back in­jury, which flared up in Fe­bru­ary, is such that the Nuggets are us­ing cau­tion with their high-fly­ing for­ward, aim­ing to limit him to about 20 min­utes per game.

“Ken­neth has pride, and I’m sure he wants to be back in the start­ing lineup, and I can only start five guys,” Malone said. “All that mat­ters to me is that when you go in the game you go out there and play as hard as you can. I never have to worry about that with Ken­neth.”

Nuggets for­ward Ken­neth Faried helped the team mus­cle past the Cava­liers on Wed­nes­day night. John Leyba, Den­ver Post file

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