Cleveland Cavaliers’ top-ranked defense shredded by Denver Nuggets in 121-108 loss

DENVER — Not even the NBA’s top-ranked defense — or a stoppage for a crooked hoop — could slow down the rolling Denver Nuggets.

The Cleveland Cavaliers opened their longest remaining road trip of the season with a 121-108 loss in the Mile High City on Friday night. The stumble snaps Cleveland’s three-game winning streak. Denver, the Western Conference’s top team, has won four of its last five and nine of 11. The Nuggets have also won 10 in a row at Boisterous Ball Arena — the most difficult building for opponents this season.

“Little disappointed to be honest with you,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said following the loss. “I don’t think we gave them our best shot. They’re a really good team. They execute at a high level. They execute their game plans really well defensively, you could see that tonight. But you don’t miss as many free throws as we did tonight, as many shots in the paint as we did tonight and say that’s our best shot. I know we can be better.”

Friday night was a stylistic clash. The Nuggets entered the game with the league’s second-ranked offense, averaging 116.7 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs have the top defense, only surrendering 106 points per night. Something had to give.

Advantage: Nuggets.

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Cleveland looked helpless trying to slow down two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and Co.

Jokic recorded a triple-double, scoring 28 points to go with 15 rebounds and 10 assists in 35 dominant minutes. He got plenty of help. Six other players — Jamal Murray (18), Michael Porter Jr. (16), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14), Bruce Brown (13), Bones Hyland (13) and Aaron Gordon (12) — reached double figures. The Nuggets shot 43 of 81 (53.1%) from the field and 17 of 35 (48.6%) from 3-point range.

“I just don’t think we were locked in the way we needed to be,” Bickerstaff said. “I just don’t think we had the right approach to beat a team like this tonight. I thought we came out of the game the right way. But we just didn’t carry it over. We didn’t sustain it for long enough. They made shots and they do things to put you in a tough spot. We’re better than that defensively.”

Even though the Cavs played without Donovan Mitchell, who looked worn down in Wednesday’s win against Phoenix and received a rest night, All-Star point guard Darius Garland returned from a three-game absence due to a sprained right thumb.

Garland looked uncomfortable fighting through the pain early. Starting the game with a black protective wrap around that injured thumb, which is still swollen, bruised and throbbing, Garland misfired on seven of his first nine shots. At one point in the early stages of the game, Garland removed the wrap, saying afterwards it was annoying and he still needs to learn how to play with it on.

Nevertheless, the youngster turned it around as the game progressed, finishing with 21 points on 8 of 20 from the field. Fourteen of those came in the second half.

“Just felt like I could come back for the team,” Garland explained. “I’m trying to just go out there and just play through it. I know it’s gonna have an effect on me, so I was just trying to go through and just play my game.”

Caris LeVert led the way with 22 points, including 13 in the second half. Cedi Osman chipped in with 15. Jarrett Allen had 13 points and nine rebounds. Evan Mobley tallied 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks.

The Cavs shot 40 of 88 from the field and 10 of 26 from beyond the arc. They also missed 14 of their 32 free throw attempts. Mobley went 0 for 6.

Near the start of the fourth quarter while Mobley was on the foul line, there was about an eight-minute interruption after Cavs veteran Kevin Love got a tip from Mitchell and pointed out to the officiating crew that one of the hoops was crooked. Arena workers pulled out the levels and ladders to correct the issue while players tried to stay loose any way possible. Some even danced to the music blaring throughout the building.

But Denver picked up where it left off before that, cruising to a decisive victory.

“From our bench angle, it looked pretty considerable,” Love said. “From about 94 feet, it was pretty bad. We were hoping that they would change their rhythm a little bit. Too little too late.”

Getting rest

Even though Mitchell slipped late in Wednesday’s game and came up hobbling, his absence Friday night had more to do with getting a much-needed night off after carrying such a heavy burden over the last few weeks.

“You take into account how guys feel and understanding that they have to take care of their body,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “We’ve put a heavy toll on him. With Darius being out, he had to have the ball in his hands. His usage has been crazy. His minutes have been crazy. As much as I hate to admit it, we do pay attention to some of the science. Our goal is always to do what’s best for our guys and running them into the ground isn’t what’s best for him.”

Clearing hurdles

Injured guard Ricky Rubio is nearing his debut season. Rubio, who had ACL surgery last January, worked extensively on his conditioning following Friday morning’s shootaround. He recently passed some of the team’s strength and balance tests.

“The milestones that he had to cross, those have been checked off. Just a matter of getting him those reps so he can be comfortable and confident and we can get him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said before the game. “I think we’re close.”

Up next

The Cavs will continue their five-game road trip with a matchup in Phoenix on Sunday. Tipoff is set for 8 pm ET.

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