Denver Nuggets 133, Cleveland Cavaliers 95: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Defense has been the backbone for success during Michael Malone’s tenure as head coach with the Nuggets. The team got back to its fundaments with a dominant 133-95 victory over the visiting Cavaliers.

After struggling to defend downtown during its three-game losing streak, Denver held Cleveland to just 21.1 percent on threes Wednesday night. Overall, the visitors shot just 37.9 percent against a persistent Nuggets defense.

"This season we’ve had big leads at halftime and the third quarter has been something that wasn’t very good to us. I love the fact that the defense, for 48 minutes, was terrific," Malone said. 

Paul Millsap led all scorers with 22 points and four boards as the Nuggets had six in double figures. The Cavs were paced by Jarrett Allen, who had 18 points and 10 boards.

As good as the Nuggets were on defense, they were also clicking on offense. The home team hit 16 threes and dished out 32 dimes on the night.

Denver will now look to gain momentum from its win when it hosts the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night (7 p.m. MT, ALTITUDE).

Here are the takeaways:

Birthday boy to the rescue

Millsap turned 36 Wednesday and like a fine bottle of Cabernet, the veteran forward delivered in a key spot for Denver.

With the Nuggets mired in a three-game skid, the team needed its leaders to step forward and Millsap was relentless throughout the contest. The forward set the tone early, threading the needle on a Joker-like pass to Nikola Jokić early in the first quarter. Millsap then started to aggressively attack, hitting a pair of threes and going to the line four times to drop nine in the opening quarter. He wouldn’t let up.

Millsap would continue to cut and find efficient looks, with his third-quarter slam off a no-look feed from Jamal Murray. In addition to his scoring output, he was also a menace in the passing lane and grabbed two steals.

"[It] wasn’t the emphasis to put points on the board, but emphasis on the defensive end just to get at it, get active," Millsap explained. "We got to be better defensively. Tonight, wanted to put emphasis on that. Getting more deflections, getting out, and helping each other a little bit more. Wanted to lead by that." 

MPJ bounces back

After a bright return from health and safety protocols, Michael Porter Jr. had found himself in a slump in the Nuggets’ last five games. The second-year forward averaged 8.8 points on 38.1 percent during that span and was a -8.0 in plus/minus. Porter Jr. got back to himself Wednesday night.

Porter Jr. was the second-highest scorer for Denver against the Cavs, dropping 19 points and five rebounds on 6 of 10 shooting. His four threes were a big reason why the Nuggets were able to drop 100 points through just three quarters before all of the starters sat in the fourth.

Porter Jr. also had an impact on steals, where he had two, and finished with an impressive +28 in plus/minus.

Zeke capitalizes on opportunity

Zeke Nnaji came in early for the Nuggets, subbing in the first quarter before playing six minutes overall in the opening 24 minutes. Though he was held scoreless, he was second on the bench in plus/minus at six and seemingly gained confidence. With the game largely decided by the third quarter, he got extended minutes in the second half. He didn’t disappoint.

"It was an opportunity to get Zeke in the game and he took full advantage of that opportunity," Malone said. 

The No. 22 pick of the 2020 draft finished the night with 14 points and showcased his potential as a shooter, hitting four threes in the process. The rookie big man brought the bench to its feet with a slam over Dylan Windler. The night was something the former Wildcat can build on.

"All throughout the season, coach told me to be ready and when your opportunity comes, make the most of it. I've just been staying mentally locked in," Nnaji said of waiting for his chance to play. "Some of the confidence comes from knowing how hard I worked and the time I've put in the gym, [and knowing] what I'm capable of doing." 

Nnaji wasn’t the only rookie to shine as R.J. Hampton continues to trend upward, adding nine points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. 

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