This week in NBA improbability: The hard-luck Nuggets, one of the worst teams in the league to date, got the best of the Cavs on Cleveland’s home floor,106-97. The regular season is occasion for just this kind of outcome. Cleveland had little excuse to lose this game and Denver had little claim to win it. Yet strange things happen when one team so clearly out-works the other, particularly when a positioned favorite has limited means to cover for its own limitations.
The former is fixable and all too common to teams boasting as much talent as these Cavs. For stretches at a time, Cleveland will play with rigor and attention to detail. In those stints between they tend to float by — strolls in transition defense, casual passing and surrender in coverage put the Cavs at more of a disadvantage than their roster warrants. The Nuggets, who played spirited ball in denial of their 2-7 record, seized on the difference in energy almost immediately. It was through that extra lift that Denver held within two points through a quarter and seized a one-point advantage by halftime. By extending their efforts the Nuggets built and maintained a surprising lead, which swelled to 16 while the Cavs gradually caught on to their predicament.
Whether Cleveland’s eventual push was too little or too late is immaterial. This potential contender doesn’t have the luxury to skimp or spare on its easiest game of the week. Already it blew a home opener to the lowly Knicks, snuck by the Bulls with a fortunate continuation call, lost out to the Jazz at the buzzer, and nearly gave away a game to the Celtics. At this formative stage, the Cavs seem to have missed an crucial fact: The freedom to go through the motions must be earned.
The story of Monday’s game, though, does not begin and end with wine and gold. Denver rallied from an embarrassing weekend loss to the Knicks with surprising competence. The shades of this season’s Nuggets were still very much present, enough so to at least put Denver’s upset bid in doubt. Yet matchup advantages gave Brian Shaw’s team a certain confidence, not to mention answers. When in a jam or any broken play, Denver could default by running basic pick-and-roll action through Ty Lawson (24 points, 12 assists) — first against Kyrie Irving and later Dion Waiters. Neither could stay in front of Lawson, who of late has looked more and more his healthy, agile self. Arron Afflalo (23 points, 4 of 8 3FG, three assists) also worked over either opposing guard from the mid post, else he could wait until Lawson’s dribble penetration compromised the Cavs defense and forced some panicked rotation.
In either case, the floor was spread in part because Shaw opted to rely on Darrell Arthur in the final quarter in place of Kenneth Faried. Arthur is clearly the inferior of the two overall, yet situationally his usage made sense. Against a team so sloppy in defending the pick-and-roll as Cleveland, Arthur’s shooting allowed Denver to clear space and isolate the opponent’s worst individual defenders. He responded by hitting two big shots down the stretch and contributing 13 points (with a career-best three made three-pointers) and 11 rebounds overall.
With room to work, Lawson had so much success driving past Irving and Waiters (particularly when Kevin Love was drawn into the two-man game) that Denver closed out the game in relative comfort. Cleveland’s own offense stalled in the process; the team with three superstars shot just 35 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, propped up only by a scoring burst (12 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the fourth) from Waiters. By that stage of the game the momentum of the Cavs’ offense had again worn down. It was hardly the most stagnant spell of Cleveland’s season thus far. Regardless, the lack of fluidity was enough to doom the Cavs on this particular night — even against an opponent as underwhelming as this.
Cleveland still has the air of a team figuring itself out and will for some time. Such is more qualification than excuse. Every loss in the interim must be owned, every missed opportunity autopsied and understood. Monday’s loss might not be the last of its kind for the Cavs, but by April the lessons therein will have to be internalized.
The implications for Denver are more immediate. This could have been the Nuggets' eighth loss in 10 games, a toll of the bell for Shaw as head coach. Instead, a toiling team holds on for dear life by toppling a more talented opponent. Nothing in Denver's struggles has been solved or remedied in any lasting way, but between this victory and a 108-87 drubbing of the Pacers last week is – to a squinting eye in just the right light – something faintly resembling respectability. It won't likely last, but the Nuggets earned precious latitude.