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