The Denver Nuggets closed out a forgettable road trip with a reminder that LeBron James is still one of the best players on the planet. LeBron filled up the stat sheet and had a monster first quarter against a hapless Nuggets defense to give Cleveland a huge lead early. Despite huge contributions from Denver's bench they were unable to overcome the raw talent of the Cleveland Cavaliers and end up closing out their five game road trip with a thirty-three point loss and a 1-4 record overall.
The game opened up with both teams looking to push the pace. J.R. Smith got the first five of the Cavaliers points but Denver kept pace mainly due to Gary Harris' aggressive play. Jakarr Sampson drew guard duty first on James and did his best to at least slow LBJ down but the combination of James, Smith and Channing Frye gave the Cavs the early lead. As the quarter continued the Nuggets offense began to stagnate whereas Frye sank several jumpers for Cleveland and the lead grew to double digits. When the Nuggets bench checked in they were wholly ineffective at scoring and defending James and the Cavaliers ended the first with a 38-23 lead.
The second quarter opened with a reprieve for Denver as James got some rest on the bench and their defense was noticeably executing better. As the quarter progressed the Nuggets bench, particularly Will Barton and Jusuf Nurkic, thoroughly outplayed the Cavs bench to the tune of an 18-0 run and by midway through the quarter the big lead that Cleveland built in the first evaporated. When LeBron finally checked back in he was immediately met with a big Nurkic rejection. However, the Cavs starters were able to calm things down and take back the lead. The Cavaliers starters and the Nuggets bench went back and forth to close out the quarter and the score was 56-48 Cleveland.
Via Michael Gallagher of NBC Sports
The Nuggets opened the second half without the services of Sampson due to a shoulder injury and the much dreamed of pairing of Nikola Jokic and Nurkic started. However, it was pretty obvious that the front court of Nurkic-Jokic-Arthur had very little time playing together and Denver's offense was out of rhythm while they struggled to get back on defense and Cleveland got out on a 10-0 run. Despite some improvement from the lineup (including a pretty post maneuver from Jokic), by just over halfway through the quarter the Cavs lead had risen to fifteen and coach Michael Malone brought Barton back in, ending the Nurkic/Jokic experiment for the night. Barton provided some offense for the Nuggets but the defense was largely absent for the whole quarter and Denver still trailed by fifteen after three.
The Cavaliers opened the fourth quarter with LeBron back in the game and facilitating the offense looking to put the game away. A 4-0 burst out of the gate from Cleveland triggered an angry Malone timeout. Unfortunately there is only so much strategy to be had against a player like LeBron and whatever adjustments the Nuggets made they didn't work as the Cavs lead climbed above twenty. James was able to get the basket at will and was fishing for the final assist he needed to get a triple double. It was pretty much all over with six minutes remaining when he finally did get that last assist and the game ended with the reserves playing it out. Cleveland wins 124-91.
Box score via ESPN.com
Key match up: Emmanuel Mudiay vs Kyrie Irving
This turned out to be a dud. Neither player played particularly well and Mudiay didn't score his first points of the game until near the end of the third quarter. Irving played better but was largely a non-factor in the game. It's been a rough road trip for Mudiay and perhaps he is finally hitting the rookie wall. In previous games where he played poorly he's been maligned by bad shot selection and sloppy turnovers but tonight it was as if he wasn't part of the game at all. Hopefully Dr. Congo can get back on track at home against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
Key thing to watch for: Contain the King
As many teams have discovered before Denver (and as Denver likely already knows) containing the King is easier said than done. James got out to an early start with seventeen first quarter points and kept piling on as the game progressed. Once Sampson went out with a shoulder injury the Nuggets were left with Darrell Arthur and Axel Toupane as the only realistic defenders for LeBron. Neither fared all that well. When it was all said and done the King had messed around and got a triple double in the process, meanwhile the Nuggets got saddled with a loss at the hands of an all time great.
Closing thought: Where were the starters
After Harris' initial scoring burst the Nuggets starting unit did them no favors. They allowed the Cavaliers to open a huge lead to start the game and then after the bench fought all the way back the starting unit led Cleveland get out ahead big again! By the time garbage ball started not a single starter was in double figures scoring and Mudiay had just two points on 0-7 shooting and just two assists. If not for Barton's huge scoring night and Nurkic's post defense off the bench this game is an even bigger laugher than it already was. Taking on the top team in the Eastern Conference on the tail end of a five game road trip is tough no doubt but as the leaders of the club the starters have to come out with more fire than they did tonight.
Up next: Home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday 7PM MDT