Cavs rookie takes over late as Nuggets fall to Cleveland
With all his heart, Nuggets coach George Karl believes in the basketball gods. When given a gift, sacrifices need to be made as reparation.
Focused defensive intensity, respect for the opponent, pride in the home court, attention to detail, trust in teammates.
Any and all would qualify.
Two days after surviving a scare against the Sacramento Kings, the Nuggets didn’t make enough sacrifices Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Rookie point guard Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including a coast-to-coast layup with four seconds remaining to give the Cavs a 100-99 victory at Pepsi Center.
“There’s no gifts here,” Karl said. “You’ve got to earn everything in this league. We’ve still got a great homestand and we can still salvage a good run, but there’s no question that Sacramento should’ve been a wakeup call and it wasn’t.
“I’m not saying we didn’t play hard. We just didn’t play hard enough.”
The Nuggets (22-18) had a final chance opportunity to steal another victory but saw their four-game winning streak end when Ty Lawson’s driving layup against Irving bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“The play was either get Nene the ball in the post or get it to me at the top,” Lawson said. “I got it, got a step on (Irving) and I saw him try to time the shot. I tried to step in and get him off balance. I didn’t have enough lift to finish it. It’s one of those shots I need to make.”
Two nights earlier, the Nuggets celebrated after Lawson hit a game-winning three-pointer in overtime. His clutch jumper was made possible after Arron Afflalo drew a foul on a three-point attempt and hit all three free throws with less a second remaining in regulation.
To a man, the Nuggets admitted they were fortunate to beat the Kings, but they experienced many of the same pitfalls against a Cavaliers team that had lost six straight games and was 5-11 on the road.
Denver turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 24 points for the Cavs. The Nuggets also failed to protect the paint in crunch time; each of Cleveland’s final four field goals came on layups.
“We can complain about a lot of different things and talk about a lot of different things, but we just needed to step up and get one stop,” Denver forward Al Harrington said. “We just couldn’t do it tonight.”
In a game that featured nine lead changes in the final 2:36, the Nuggets were in position to win after Nene scored in the low post with 15.1 seconds to go, prompting Cleveland to call a timeout.
Instead of moving the ball to half-court, Cavs coach Byron Scott opted to take it the length of the court.
“With 15 seconds left, we had a lot of time,” Scott said. “I really wanted to take it full court and just let Kyrie just kind of go.”
Afflalo picked up Irving in the backcourt, but couldn’t quite stay in front of him as the rookie raced across midcourt and toward the lane.
“I kind of take it as a test when people pick me up full-court,” Irving said. “I’m pretty confident in my offensive skill set, and a lane opened up when I got there.”
With Afflalo on his hip, Irving drove down the left side of the lane and banked in a layup over Nene coming across to help. It was Irving’s third layup in the final 1:46.
“To lose the game by giving up layups, it’s everybody’s fault,” Karl said. “It’s my fault. You can’t let a guy drive 84 feet and get a layup without him making a pass at the end of the game. It just can’t be done. It’s impossible to be done.”
With seven games remaining on a nine-game homestand, the Nuggets are still searching for their traditional dominance at altitude. Denver is 11-9 at Pepsi Center after not losing more than eight home games in each of the previous four seasons.
“I didn’t expect to win all nine, to be honest with you,” Karl said, “but we’ve got to wake up and play better than we’re playing right now.”
Part of the equation involves Nene and Gallinari, who are still trying to find a rhythm and comfort zone after missing nearly a month due to injuries.
Nene finished with 13 points and five rebounds, while Gallinari added five points on 1-for-7 shooting.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Gallinari said. “We had this game in our hands and we let it go. We cannot let this game go, especially against Cleveland and especially when we play at home. We’ve got to get back on track as soon as possible.”
That opportunity will come Friday when Denver plays the New Orleans Hornets, who snapped a six-game losing streak with a win at Pepsi Center on Jan. 9.
Notes: Al Harrington had 22 points off the bench, marking the eighth time this season he has led the Nuggets in scoring … With Timofey Mozgov bothered by a sore left ankle, Nene started at center alongside power forward Kenneth Faried … Antawn Jamison scored 22 of Cleveland’s first 42 points and finished with 33 … Denver dropped to 9-1 against Eastern Conference teams.