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Recap: the Nuggets lose to the Cavaliers 125-109

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Denver could not slow Cleveland’s All-Stars, and that plus fatigue made all the difference

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland announcers called Nikola “Mr. Jokic” early in the game, and he proved he deserved the honorific by posting a line of 27 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists. That wasn’t enough to dethrone the champs in their house, however, as the Cavaliers defeated Denver 125-109 behind 27 each from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, while making 15-of-30 threes. Denver’s young guards showed off their scoring prowess, as Gary Harris and Jamal Murray had 16 each, but poor shooting in the second and beginning of the third dug too deep a hole. Denver shot under 41% for the evening while Cleveland were close to 55%, but the Nuggets forced the Cavaliers to play this one out.

The Nuggets started out reluctant to shoot and the Cavs showed off their transition games and quick hands. The Cavs pushed runouts and drove the lanes early, blasting Denver in the paint the whole first quarter, but Jokic's scoring and Harris's 8 points kept Denver down just one at 13-12. Denver continued to put up threes but the Cavs were defending Jokic with Thompson and hassling Jokic on the way down the court, getting a steal off the Serbian. An angry Jokic then threw this:

Jokic also blocked a shot that led to a Jameer three and Denver posting a 26-23 lead. The team picked up on that anger and got more aggressive on defense, pushing the pace on offense. Jameer's airball and a poor pass from Jokic ended the quarter with Denver still leading 33-28.

The Nuggets emptied the bench to start the second thanks to the back-to-back tiredness, getting Johnny O'Bryant and Mike Miller into the game early. That might also have been a statement from Malone about the dangers of the Cavs' bench, but LeBron was still in the game attacking the rim at every opportunity. Barton blew several tough layups and LeBron's full-court drive to the hoop put Cleveland back up 39-37.

Jokic came in and hit a 3 almost immediately, but Derrick Williams hit a 3 and a two-on-one dunk hammer to put Cleveland back up 49-44. The Nuggets had no answers for Kyrie and struggled to push Cleveland to areas of the floor they didn't want to be on, but a Jokic layup and Barton 3 cut the lead to 59-55 Cleveland at the half.

The second half opened with some casual play that resulted in turnovers for Denver. Denver hustled on defense, though, and forced a 24 second violation. Chandler opened cold, though, and the Cavs pushed the lead to 11 on some strong transition attempts. The Nuggets looked tired after having 3 starters get 20 minutes in the first half. The end of an 18-0 run pushed it to 77-55 as Denver didn't have the legs for their long shots or the hustle to slow Cleveland's passing offense.

Gary Harris finally put in a 3, at which point Denver was shooting 22% since the first quarter. Denver was driving only to kick to 3-point shots that had no prayer of landing, while Cleveland hit all their threes, shooting 57% behind the line at the point LeBron hit another to put Cleveland up 83-62. Gary Harris found his scoring touch again and a Barton three cut it to 14 at 92-78, but the Nuggets had a lot of work left to do in the fourth.

Denver's bench unit came back in to start the quarter, with LeBron continuing his abuse of Hernangomez. Johnny O'Bryant got a dunk off a Barton assist, Murray made a couple of buckets, and Cleveland's turnovers let the Nuggets hang just close enough to make the Cavs keep starters in the game. Murray's dunk and Hernangomez's full-speed layup made it 103-91, but the Cavs kept hitting shots. Channing Frye and Kyle Korver made long-distance shots to keep the lead double-digits every time Denver made a push.

At 114-98, Denver left Jokic and Nelson in with Murray and Beasley, both waiving the white flag and getting the kids some minutes with starters. The final score was 125-109 and the game was never really in doubt, but Denver competed the whole game which should at least let Malone feel better about losing to yet another of his old teams.

Three thoughts:

- The Nuggets need to break old habits. Barton and Chandler have both gotten used to cutting to the bucket when Jokic or even Nelson have the ball, but they aren't used to passing the ball once they get it - at least not with Jokic in the game. Barton has had some good assist games this year (the best of his career, in fact) but he has to get used to giving the ball back to the center if there's no driving lane. It stops the ball unnecessarily, and stands out when compared to other players on the court.

Jameer used to be the same way but has adjusted his game recently to be able to succeed next to Jokic and still direct portions of the offense. Denver's wings need to do the same - although in the second half both Chandler and Barton tried to get the ball in to Jokic and turned it over, so maybe it's just asking too much.

- Denver's bench is suffering without a true PG to run it. Jameer has adjusted to play well with Jokic, but that leaves the bench to Murray. If he can hit shots it can work (like it did when Murray scored 10 points early in the fourth to keep Denver in touch). But those second-quarter lapses keep happening with the bench, and it's keeping Denver from putting teams away (or staying as close as they need to in order to rest starters). Denver blew the game with its starters at the beginning of the third, but the bench forced Malone to play his starters too much in the first half.

- The defense is going to suffer with this personnel. Short-handed and on the second night of a back-to-back is not the best way to judge a team, but Denver has no shot-blocker and the Cavs drove the lane with impunity early on. If you can’t stop points at the bucket and you can’t run teams off the three point line there are going to be a lot of long nights defensively.

Denver’s last draft was to address some shooting woes, and all three rookies will be plus shooters. Juancho was overpowered by LeBron tonight, though - as most players are - and simply could not hold his assignment. None of the Denver players really can, which means that teams like Atlanta and Cleveland can cut up the Nuggets on one end and only need to force a few bad minutes of Denver offense to get wins. The Nuggets have a lot of nice young players but Tim Connelly is nowhere near done shaping this roster to be a two-way force.