Cleveland Cavaliers 104, Denver Nuggets 102: Three takeaways

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Unfortunately for the Denver Nuggets, that is exactly how one can describe the team’s recent play, especially against non-playoff teams across the league. On Saturday, it was no different as Denver fell 104-102 on the road to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"Defense continues to be a real issue for us," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "Transition (play) is really bad, so we have to find a way to shore that up. We have to be more disciplined."

The Nuggets (42-21) used the long ball to jump out to a fast start in the first quarter. Although the scoring dried up late in the quarter, seven 3-pointers helped Denver build a 33-23 advantage after one. After their offense cooled off in the second quarter, the Nuggets held a 61-58 lead at the halftime break.

The Nuggets’ inability to get stops continued to hurt them in the third quarter as the Cavaliers took their first lead of the night. Cleveland (18-45) withstood Denver’s comeback attempt to hold an 85-83 lead heading into the final frame. Despite tightening up on the defensive end in the fourth, the Nuggets couldn’t find the basket enough to pull out the victory.

Denver set a new season-high for steals in a game with 15.

Here are three takeaways from Denver’s loss:

Harris found an offensive groove

The Nuggets received the best version of Gary Harris in Saturday’s loss. Harris was actively cutting towards the basket and knocked down several jumpers to keep the defense honest. Of course, a typical Harris game also includes impressive defense, which was certainly the case Saturday as the 25-year-old finished with five steals on the night.

In the end, Harris finished with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field. When Harris plays as he did in Cleveland, Denver is even harder to stop on offense, while his point-of-attack defense is crucial for the Nuggets to have success on that end of the floor.

Defensive struggles persisted (for the most part)

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Cleveland owned the 25th-ranked offense in the league. But as has been the case in recent weeks, the Nuggets struggled mightily on the defensive end, which continued to put them in tough spots.

"The key stretch was the end of the second quarter," Malone said. "They closed the second quarter on a 10-2 run and had all the momentum."

The Cavaliers shot 55.3 percent from the field, 42.9 from beyond the arc, dropped 48 points in the paint and found plenty of success in transition (they finished with 15 fast break points). However, the fourth quarter was a bright spot for Denver, as Cleveland only mustered 19 points as the Nuggets pulled out the victory.

If Denver can maintain that level of execution on the defensive end moving forward, they will fare much better against the quality opponents ahead on the schedule. Plenty of credit should go to Jerami Grant, who finished with four steals on the night but was particularly active in the fourth quarter with several deflections and tough defensive rebounds.

3-point shooting came and went for the Nuggets

In their 33-point first quarter, the Nuggets shot 7 of 12 from beyond the arc. For the rest of the game, Denver connected on just 6-of-20 from downtown as the offense stalled while Cleveland got back into the game. Following the hot start in the first, the Nuggets scored just 69 points across the final three quarters.

The Nuggets don’t emphasize the 3-pointer in their offense, but when they are firing away from deep, the offense becomes nearly unstoppable given the ball and player movement that is regularly involved each trip down the floor. However, when the shots don’t fall, the defense can be more aggressive in attacking Denver’s top offensive players and disrupt the offensive flow for the Nuggets.

"Turnovers," Malone said when asked about what bogged the offense down in the second half. "18 turnovers once again, that's been a big issue recently in the eight games since the All-Star break. They played pretty good defense on Nikola."

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