Another Denver smackdown in advance of Texas showdown
The trap was set.
Sandwiched between convincing wins over the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat and a grudge-match game against the San Antonio Spurs was a date with the Cleveland Cavaliers – the team with the NBA’s worst record.
Weak-minded teams might be susceptible to a letdown.
Aside from a sketchy 4-minute stretch to start the fourth quarter Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets passed the pop quiz with little trouble.
Denver scored a season-high 80 points in the first half and cruised to a 127-99 victory over the Cavs, who lost their 19th straight road game and their 13th in a row overall.
The blowout victory enabled coach George Karl to rest most of his starters in the fourth quarter in advance of Sunday’s road game against the Spurs (34-6), who boast the NBA’s best record as the season nears the midway point.
San Antonio has beaten the Nuggets twice this season, including a one-point win at the Pepsi Center on Dec. 16. That game ended when Carmelo Anthony’s go-ahead basket was waived off by a charge call in the final seconds.
“We owe these guys and we’ve got to find a way to get a win,” Denver forward Al Harrington said. “I’m happy that we were able to rest and not play too many big minutes. We have no excuse not to come out with good energy.”
The Nuggets (23-16) came out with energy from the opening tip against Cleveland, racing out to an 8-0 lead and never looking back. They used a 27-6 run over a five-minute stretch of the second quarter to prove they weren’t taking a cavalier approach to the game.
“We took care of business,’’ Karl said. “We kept a good attitude and didn’t get bored with the game. We got a little sloppy at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the second unit fought back and got into the right groove.”
The Nuggets are in a historic groove, winning three consecutive games by at least 28 points for the first time in team history. They are doing it with unselfish play on offense – at least 30 assists in all three wins – and an attention to detail on defense.
“Guys are just playing together, moving the ball,” point guard Chauncey Billups said. “Defensively, guys are active and tuned in to what’s going on right now. That’s what we’re capable of doing – not winning by 30 every night, but just playing well, playing together.”
Billups was a picture of efficiency, scoring 21 points on the strength of 5-of-5 three-point shooting and handing out eight assists.
Five of Billups’ assists came on baskets by center Nene, who continued to bolster his case for invitation to the NBA All-Star game. Nene led the Nuggets with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting in just 19 minutes. He is 30-for-41 (.732) from the field over the past five games.
“Nene was pretty much a force in the paint,” Karl said. “He does get a lot of paint points and catches, but he also makes jump shots. He’s very important to us.”
Arron Afflalo added 21 points as six Nuggets scored in double figures. The balanced scoring has helped Denver score at least 127 points in three straight games for first time since November 1990 when coach Paul Westhead tried to turn NBA games into 48-minute track meets.
Prior to the scoring outburst, Denver averaged 94 points during a three-game losing streak.
“I’m happy with the way the team has bounced back,” Karl said. “We’ve been able to get the funk out of our system and gotten back to playing intense basketball.”
The intensity level figures to increase with upcoming games against the top three teams in the Western Conference: San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets hope to have backup point guard Ty Lawson against San Antonio. Lawson did not return Saturday night after spraining his left ankle in the first half.
Denver also played without starting power forward Kenyon Martin, opting to give his surgically repaired left knee an extra day of rest. Martin will return Sunday to battle with San Antonio big man Tim Duncan.
“I’m glad we made it an easy game (Saturday) so we could get some rest,” Karl said. “Hopefully we’ll steal a game from San Antonio like they’ve stolen two from us.”