CLEVELAND — The Denver Nuggets secured one of their biggest wins of the season Saturday night, using hot shooting and clutch play on both ends of the floor to win at Cleveland 126-117 on the second night of a back-to-back set.
Here are seven takeaways from Denver’s fourth consecutive road win:
1. Where’s Joker? After breaking a streak of 20 consecutive games in double figures Friday night in Memphis, Nikola Jokic again finished with nine points against the Cavaliers. Coach Michael Malone was adamant before the game that, even with Paul Millsap back, he wants the Nuggets’ offense to run through Jokic and for him to take more shots. He only took one in the first half in Cleveland before going 2-of-7 after intermission, though his two makes were a long jumper and 3-pointer right out of the break that helped Denver rebuild a double-digit lead. Jokic did finish with seven rebounds, a team-high plus/minus of plus-12 and a team-high eight assists, which illustrates that the offense was still running through Jokic.
(Also, here’s a small glimpse at why Jokic is such an unassuming budding star that probably is not nearly as concerned about two lower-than-average scoring performances as a portion of Denver’s fan base. The Nuggets stayed over in Cleveland Saturday night, and several players were … dressed accordingly after the game. Jokic was in team sweats and a pair of Nikes that I also own and brought on this road trip)
2. Defense, defense. Denver’s defense has been a tad better since Millsap’s return, though that’s not saying a whole lot. However, the Nuggets again picked their moment to clamp down on that end of the floor. Though Cleveland did sink key free throws to help it close the gap to one point late in the fourth quarter, it made just one of its eight field-goal attempts over the final 6:46. In the fourth quarter overall, the Cavaliers went 6-of-17, including a 1-of-6 mark from 3-point distance. Denver made six 3-pointers in the final period on 11 attempts.
3. Weird stats. The Nuggets won Saturday despite getting out-rebounded 41-35 (including 12-6 on the offensive glass) and getting outscored in the paint (50-44), on second chances (10-5) and on the fastbreak (21-14). This helps explain the damage that hitting 19 3-pointers can do.
4. RJ returns. What a fitting time for veteran Richard Jefferson to get his first minutes since Jan. 30. He checked into the game shortly after the Cavaliers used a video board shoutout to honor Jefferson, who won a championship with the team in 2016. Jefferson finished Saturday with four points (2-of-2 shooting), two assists and one rebound in 15 minutes. He primarily played alongside Devin Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee, a group that would likely only be put together on the second night of a back-to-back set. Trey Lyles, meanwhile, did not play, an odd personnel move considering Malone has said multiple times in recent days that he feels bad for Lyles as the player most directly impacted by Millsap’s return from wrist surgery.
5. Value the ball. After committing 20 turnovers in Tuesday’s loss to the Clippers and 22 during Friday’s squeaker against Memphis, Denver gave the ball up just nine times for 11 points against the Cavaliers. The last time the Nuggets committed single-digit turnovers? That happened in back-to-back games against Utah and Minnesota on Dec. 26 and 27.
6. Standings update. Denver remained in the eighth spot in the West following Saturday’s win. But things continued to shift right above the Nuggets, even in the five minutes it took me to walk from Quicken Loans Arena to my hotel two blocks away. Entering Sunday’s games, things now look like this:
3. Portland 37-26
4. Minnesota 38-28
5. New Orleans 35-26
6. San Antonio 36-27
7. Oklahoma City 37-28
8. Denver 35-28
The Nuggets are off the next two days. Sunday’s notable games are New Orleans at Dallas and Brooklyn at the Clippers. On Monday, San Antonio hosts Memphis, Utah hosts Orlando and Portland visits the Lakers.
7. The Land. This was my first time in Cleveland, a visit that obviously did not present much opportunity to explore because of the back-to-back and no nonstop flights here out of Memphis. But what a difference 24 hours made in terms of arena atmosphere. “The Q” was sold out and rockin’ — definitely a top-5 road crowd I’ve experienced this season.