Denver Nuggets 103, Cleveland Cavaliers 111: Three takeaways
The Nuggets’ concerning habit of losing to sub .500 teams continued with a 111-103 loss to the Cavaliers.
Jamal Murray led the home team with 24 points while Collin Sexton paced Cleveland with 25 points.
"Tough night, but give them credit. They had us on our heels the whole night," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game.
The Nuggets struggled from the start and couldn’t find any offensive rhythm against the Cavaliers in the first quarter. The team failed to record an assist in the opening 10 minutes of the game and couldn’t connect from downtown, going 0 of 8. Denver also struggled to get into the lane and didn’t take a single free throw in the opening 12 minutes.
The Nuggets would improve in the second quarter thanks to an inspired showing by Gary Harris. The shooting guard started the game 0 of 5, but got going, helping the Nuggets rally before halftime. Harris brought the Pepsi Center crowd to its feet with a fierce one-handed demolition of Matthew Dellavedova on a slam. Harris would chip in four points, two steals and two assists and sparked a 7-2 run to cut the deficit to 32-26. Cleveland, however, would respond with a 7-2 run to take a nine-point lead into the break.
Things would only get worse for the Nuggets in the third quarter. The Cavaliers would take their biggest lead of the night, a 16-point advantage, after outscoring the home team 19-10 in the opening seven minutes. Denver was porous defensively in the third quarter as it allowed Cleveland to hit four threes and convert 4 of 5 inside the arc. Collin Sexton ignited the Cavaliers’ dominance, scoring 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting.
Denver would fight back in the final 12 minutes of the game, hitting four of its first five buckets to cut the score to 90-84. Jamal Murray struggled with his shot in the first half, going 2 of 8, but he came alive in the fourth, scoring 10 points. At the 7:45 mark, Murray had one of the biggest plays of the night as he stole the ball from Sexton and followed it with a two-handed flush. The bucket cut the score to 90-88. He would follow that up by tying the contest up at 93 apiece with a clutch three. Denver would take its first lead of the night thanks to Nikola Jokić, who hit a three to put the team ahead 96-95. Unfortunately, for Malone’s team, the group couldn’t gain any traction from that play. The Cavaliers would secure the victory thanks to Darius Garland, who scored six unanswered points to push Cleveland’s lead to eight.
"I thought our guys played hard and competed and gave ourselves a chance, but unfortunately, it didn't go our way," Malone said.
Here are the takeaways:
Early shooting woes prove costly
The Cavaliers had the 29th-ranked defense entering Saturday’s contest, but the Nuggets failed to take advantage as they shot a woeful 17.6 percent from downtown in the first half. Outside of Will Barton III, who had 13 points at the half and Jokić, who was a perfect 4 of 4, Denver couldn’t find any flow on offense.
"We had a lot of good looks in the first half that didn't go down and it was an uphill battle from there," Murray said.
Denver’s backcourt of Murray and Harris particularly struggled, going 4 of 16 in the first half. Although Murray would get going in the second half, helping Denver go on a 22-8 run in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t enough to overcome Cleveland. The Nuggets’ overall inability to impose themselves early on gave the Cavaliers enough confidence to see the game out.
"We dug ourselves a hole and almost got out of it, but you can't do that [fall behind by big margins]," Malone said.
Another loss to a non-playoff team
Prior to Saturday’s game, Malone mentioned Denver’s issues with playing down to its opponents, citing that his team has lost to five opponents with 15 wins or less. The disturbing trend continued Saturday.
" I think sometimes bad teams come in and play free and we have expectations this year," Mason Plumlee said. "We have to be able to play with those [teams] and still play free and hit shots even though we're expected to win."
The Nuggets' loss to the Cavaliers, who entered the game with an 11-26 record, exposed some areas that the team will need to improve if it wants to deliver on their expectations of being a contender. Defense remains a concern, with Cleveland’s backcourt of Garland and Sexton combining for 43 points on 50 percent shooting. Over the Nuggets’ last 10 games, their defensive rating has slipped all the way down to 30th in the NBA at 117.2. That’s a dramatic decline from the first two months of the season, where the team was first in the NBA. Malone utilized a zone defense for the first time of the season in the fourth quarter in an effort to improve in that area.
"The reason I went to that [the zone] is because our man-to-man was so awful. Their guards lived in our paint all night long, it was layup after layup," Malone said. "I just said let's try something different and it worked, it was effective."
The team’s bench production is another worrisome area, contributing 21 points. Considering the depth the team has, it’s a group that desperately needs to find consistency.
Murray’s clutch fourth quarter
Murray started the game 1 of 5 but would be difference-maker for the Nuggets in the second half, scoring 20 in the final 24 minutes.
Although the Nuggets would ultimately drop a result against the Cavaliers, Malone can take some encouragement by the 22-year-old’s assertiveness and two clutch threes in the fourth quarter. It’s a performance Murray can build on heading into Sunday’s marquee matchup against the Clippers.