CLEVELAND (AP) — Gary Harris scored 32 points, Will Barton added 23 and the Denver Nuggets did most of their damage behind the 3-point arc in a 126-117 win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.
The Nuggets made 19 of 35 3-pointers, including three in the final 2:26, to hold off a second-half charge from the Cavs, who are struggling as they try to blend in four new players on the fly.
James finished with 25 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds — his 13th triple-double this season — but Cleveland’s lack of a dependable No. 2 scorer with Kevin Love out with a broken left hand continues to be a major problem.
More troublesome, though, is the Cavs’ defense or lack of it. Whenever Denver needed a big basket, the Nuggets got it by making the extra pass and exploiting holes in Cleveland’s defense.
J.R. Smith scored 19 points — all in the second half — in his return from a one-game suspension for throwing a bowl of soup on Cavs assistant coach Damon Jones. With Smith and James carrying the scoring load, the Cavs pulled within 115-114 with 2:40 left.
But the Nuggets came right back as Paul Millsap drilled a 3-pointer and Harris made two more from outside to put it away. Jamal Murray and Wilson Chandler added 16 points apiece for the Nuggets, who are 9-3 since Feb. 1.
Larry Nance Jr. gave the Cavs a needed lift in the second quarter with a vicious dunk.
Catching a pass on the baseline, Nance, who recently participated in the dunk contest during All-Star weekend, took one dribble, cocked his arm and posterized Mason Plumlee. The slam brought James and several other amazed Cavs onto the floor to celebrate.
The Nuggets, though, weren’t fazed.
Harris and Barton knocked down 3-pointers and Denver pushed its lead to 14 and was up 73-62 at halftime.
Nuggets: F Richard Jefferson received a warm ovation when the former Cav was introduced during a timeout in the first quarter. … Coach Mike Malone fondly recalled “a great five-year” ride (2005-2010) as an assistant with the Cavs. Malone was with James early in the superstar’s career and believes his commitment is often looked. Malone still marvels that James took the Cavs to the Finals in 2007 with a group of “castoffs,” and he’s equally impressed about the man he’s become. “Now you look at LeBron off the court and his maturity and his voice and everything that he stands for,” Malone said. “It’s really remarkable.” … Denver will play 11 of 15 games in March on road.
Cavaliers: F Jeff Green missed his second game this week with a sore lower back, and coach Tyronn Lue said it’s possible the 32-year-old could be out even longer. Green underwent an MRI on Saturday that did not reveal any structural damage. Green’s absence creates a hole with Cleveland’s second unit, and Lue is counting on Hill and Clarkson to pick up the slack. … Love again worked out with Cleveland’s coaches at shootaround. The All-Star could return earlier than the projected eight weeks, but Lue isn’t sure if that’s the case. “It would be a good thing if it was,” he said.
The 37-year-old Jefferson returned to Cleveland for the first time since being traded in October, and he felt strange entering the visitor’s locker room at Quicken Loans Arena. He was beloved by his Cavs teammates for his attitude and selflessness.
“Every team needs guys that help the locker room and I think every team needs guys that say, ‘What do you need from me? You need me to just go guard this guy? You need me to not play tonight?'” he said. “That helps the engine kind of run.”
Jefferson’s made a strong impression on the Nuggets.
“R.J.’s ability to grab young players and help them, whether it’s through playing or teaching or just words of encouragement, is really important for a team like us that has so many players that are 23 years or younger,” Malone said. “R.J.’s mentorship and leadership has been invaluable for us.”
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