The Denver Nuggets played what might be their best all-around game of the year, ousting the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 126-113. Gary Harris led all Nuggets scorers with 21 points, followed closely by Will Barton with 20 off the bench. Nikola Jokic added another near triple-double (16-10-7) in just 29 minutes, and while Kyrie Irving put up 33 points, it wasn’t enough for a Cavs team that fell behind early.

Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur turned out to be ready to play tonight after being sidelined by injuries for multiple games, while Danilo Gallinari remained out. The Nuggets inserted Chandler into the starting lineup in place of Juancho Hernangomez, while Jameer Nelson, Gary Harris, Mason Plumlee, and Nikola Jokic joined him.

Harris opened up the scoring for the Nuggets with a nice midrange jumper off the dribble, while Kevin Love showed that he still can stretch the floor, hitting two wide open threes off of poor rotations by Plumlee. Both teams were feeling each other out early, and while the Nuggets fed off of assists by Jokic and Harris, the Cavs were very balanced. As soon as Plumlee went out and Faried entered, the momentum shifted in Denver’s favor heavily. It’s evident that Faried/Jokic is the best front court pairing. Not even close.

Will Barton came in and hit his first two shots, one a layup in transition and the other a layup in a half court set. The Nuggets trotted out an interesting lineup of Jamal Murray-Gary Harris-Will Barton-Juancho Hernangomez-Kenneth Faried, which I really liked to counter the Cavs’ small ball effort. Barton and Murray hit jumpers, while Harris earned some shots at the line. The rotations were a little slow defensively, but this lineup is a potential run and gun weapon for Denver to utilize in the future. They finished the first quarter up 34-31.

The second quarter opened up with the Nuggets attempting to isolate against LeBron James. They were unsuccessful. After the group settled down a bit, the offense began to flow a bit more. On the other end, LeBron James started to do LeBron things. End of story when he turns it on. At this point, Murray went absolutely en fuego, hitting three straight three pointers in exciting fashion, extending Denver’s lead to double digits.

The Cavs began to recover a bit, attacking the glass and having Deron Williams hit some jumpers. The game started to speed up greatly, and Hernangomez was popped in the face incidentally by Richard Jefferson at one point, earning a flagrant 1. The Nuggets continued to feed off the momentum of the crowd though, as Barton hit a rhythm three and Jokic made an incredible move in the post to score on Love. Denver went on a 15-2 run in the late second quarter as well. Irving helped keep the Cavs in the game though, scoring 10 of the Cavs’ final 12 points to enter halftime at Nuggets 73, Cavs 59.

That being said:

This includes the Brooklyn Nets people.

The third quarter is always a huge swing quarter for the Nuggets, and they started out by allowing a J.R. Smith three. The Nuggets and Chandler responded with a three of their own, and every time Cleveland scored, the Nuggets countered. After an interior pass from Jokic to Plumlee for a dunk the Cavs had to call a timeout. Irving came out of the timeout with two three pointers, while the Nuggets couldn’t hit their layups on the other end. The Cavs went on a 15-6 run, forcing Denver to call a timeout. Kenneth Faried was inserted for Plumlee, and he made an IMMEDIATE impact, rolling hard to the rim, dunking the basketball, and creating energy.

The momentum swung clearly in Denver’s favor. Tyronn Lue earned a technical foul, Nikola Jokic bullied LeBron James in the post, and Faried had himself another dunk to crack the 100 point threshold late in the third quarter. Jokic went out at the 1:39 mark, and the Nuggets shot four straight midrange jumpers (all misses) to end the third quarter, allowing Irving and the Cavs to crawl back within 11 points, 101-90.

To begin the fourth quarter, Chandler led the charge for Denver. He converted on two field goals, including an And-1, while playing solid defense and coming up with a steal in the passing lane. Denver continued to keep the pressure on. The Faried-Plumlee lineup was a huge plus for Denver, collecting every rebound in sight on both ends. Harris made a spectacular layup, Faried pulled a Moses Malone offensive rebound put back, and just like that, the Cavs called a timeout down 19 points with 6:42 remaining.

After the first stop, Jokic came back in for Kenneth Faried, and he simply controlled the flow of the rest of the game. He directed offense, slowed the ball down, found guys for open shots, but most importantly, he got a little selfish. He followed up a Murray missed layup with a put back, took and made a midrange jumper, and posted up Channing Frye for an easy score, putting the game out of reach for the Cavs. Both teams dilly-dallied the rested of the way, with the Nuggets coasting to a 126-113 victory.

Three Takeaways

The rotations were solid tonight

Did Michael Malone play Wilson Chandler a bit too much? Maybe, but he needed him against LeBron James. Did he wait too long to insert Jamal Murray in the second half? Maybe. Other than that, the rotation was absolutely perfect for what the Nuggets needed at any given time. Faried was inserted to create energy, Jokic was re-inserted when the need arose, and the team had a certain flow that was very effective.

Wilson Chandler gutted out a GREAT performance

Chandler played about 40 minutes tonight, and most of it came matched up against LeBron James. Not only did he survive the matchup, he matched LeBron blow for blow with a solid all-around stat line of 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists, plus a steal. The Nuggets are a different team when one of Chandler or Gallinari can play 35 minutes a night, as the team just looks more comfortable with them out there.

Jamal Murray and Will Barton are the X-factors for the next 11 games

Both Murray and Barton played extremely well tonight. Murray put up 15 points on 10 shots, and more importantly, dished out three assists. Barton posted 20 points, four rebounds, and a couple assists and steals on efficient shooting. Both of these guys play a similar role off the bench for Denver, but the Nuggets will need their combined scoring power to carry the team while Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris sit. Both guys have the ability to heat up quickly, and both accomplished that in a huge win against the Cavs.

Concluding thought

Excellent all-around performance from the Nuggets tonight. Any of the Nuggets could be the player of the game. Gary Harris led the way with 21 points. Nikola Jokic put up 16, 10, and 7 (ho hum). Kenneth Faried came in and changed the freaking game with his aggression, leading to 17 points and 9 rebounds. Will Barton and Jamal Murray led Denver’s bench in the late first and second quarter. Wilson Chandler stepped out huge tonight with solid offense and defense. This was exactly what the Nuggets needed to get on track after two consecutive losses to an elite Rockets team, and Denver went 2-2 on the toughest part of their remaining schedule.

Now, Denver must answer the call with six of their next seven on the road. The Blazers are still nipping at their heels, only back 1.5 games, so Denver must continue to come up big over the final 11 contests. This was as good of a start to that trek as they could ask for though, and this win gives me renewed confidence in their chances.

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