The Nuggets’ biggest win of the season was built with the same bricks that have turned around their season – a devastating offense, timely stops on defense and energy throughout. When the dust settled on their 129-113 blowout of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers at the Pepsi Center, there were two quick takeaways.
First, the Nuggets added cushion to their lead over the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. That is now a 1 ½ game advantage with 11 games left.
Second, is tangible improvement. The Nuggets have 34 wins, which eclipses their win total from last season, and there are still 11 games to play. They’re hoping playoffs are in the cards.
Wednesday night’s win was a big-time boost in that direction.
“It was a great win, obviously a comeback after two tough losses against Houston,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Protecting our home court against a great team is a quality win. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
There’s no doubt about that. Coming into the game the Nuggets’ backs were against a figurative wall. Lose, and face the prospect of allowing Portland to win on Thursday and take over the eighth spot. The Nuggets had no other choice but to come out swinging, and that’s what they did.
Their play was not only effective, but it was largely mistake-free. The Nuggets had just six turnovers in the game, and an out-of-sorts Cavaliers team could only turn those into seven points. Meanwhile, the Nuggets cashed in 10 Cleveland turnovers for 20 points, and in the most eye-opening stat of the night, scored 70 points in the paint. The 40-point whipping in paint points (Cleveland scored 30), was a season high.
The Nuggets are being forced to play their best basketball right now, and they are delivering. They are now 7-4 in March, a 63 percent winning clip that is by far their best of any month this season.
“I think we’ve been playing with a sense of a confidence these last few weeks,” guard Gary Harris said. “We’ve been trying to get everybody back healthy and I feel like we are all just clicking right now. Whoever is on the court, I feel like we are all just meshing and doing well together.”
The Flow: If the first quarter was a boxing match, it would be described as two fighters feeling their way into the match. Each team hit the other with strong early shots – and both stayed standing. The Nuggets carved out a seven-point lead, 32-25, with 47 seconds left in the first. But two Cavaliers 3-pointers in the closing seconds sandwiched around a Jamal Murray jumps shot made sure the Nuggets took just a three-point lead going into the second quarter.
The second quarter was essentially the Nuggets’ knockout blow. They had a one-point lead with 8:54 left. But then the Nuggets stepped on the gas and hit Cleveland with a 28-9 run in the next 7:06 of action. When Gary Harris hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 to go, the Nuggets had a 20-point lead and Cleveland was reeling. The Nuggets hit 7-of-10 3-pointers in the second, and that explosion was led by rookie Jamal Murray, who was 3-of-4 from the 3-point line and scored 11 points in the period. Harris hit both of his tries from the arc as well. The Nuggets scored 73 first half points and led by 14 at the half.
An inspired Cavaliers team started the third quarter with renewed energy and used it to put a 22-13 run on the board and close the Nuggets’ lead to just five. But in the next three minutes, 20 seconds, the Nuggets answered with a 15-3 run of their own. They had a 17-point lead at the end of it. The lead was 19 points midway through the fourth, when Cleveland pulled LeBron James from the game, effectively waving the white flag.
Deciding run: With Cleveland rallying in the third quarter, the Nuggets did not panic. Their 15-3 run from 5:39 to 2:19 in the third pushed their lead to 17, and that was it. Cleveland never got their deficit under double digits again.
What it means: The Nuggets lead for the No. 8 seed in the West grew to 1 ½ games over the Trail Blazers, who were idle on Wednesday night.
Nuggets standouts: Seven players scored in double figures, led by Gary Harris’ 21 points. Will Barton put 20 points on the board, Wilson Chandler had 18 and Nikola Jokic finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Stat of the game: -30: That was LeBron James’ plus/minus in the game. It tied for the third-lowest of his career.
Next: The Nuggets travel to Indiana to face the Pacers in a 5 p.m. game on Friday evening.
Source: NBA.com | Christopher Dempsey | March 23, 2017