It isn’t the title they ultimately desire, but it’s a start. The real work is yet to come for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James had 33 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Cavs used a new-look defence to clinch the Central Division title with a 124-91 victory on Monday night against the Denver Nuggets.
Cleveland (50-20) endured frustrating moments of inconsistency throughout the season, but still sealed their fifth division crown in team history and their ninth 50-win season.
“All is not bad,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re still growing, we’re still getting better on a night-to-night basis and we can celebrate this, but we gotta keep moving forward.”
The Cavs scrapped some of their defensive principles that haven’t been working the last few weeks and returned to the simplified format that carried them to the NBA Finals last season. They held the Nuggets to 39.5 percent shooting on Monday and led by as many as 36 in the fourth quarter after Denver’s five starters combined to match James’ 33 points.
“It was embarrassing,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “An embarrassing effort. I haven’t seen that from our team most of the year. I’m very disappointed with that.”
The Cavs built a 19-point lead in the first quarter when they scored 38 points, their most in an opening quarter all season. However, they gave it all back in the second when Nuggets reserve guard Will Barton scored 16 of his team-high 27.
Cleveland went scoreless for more than six minutes while the Nuggets scored 17 consecutive points mainly off the Cavs’ reserves. When James and the starters returned, the Cavs reclaimed momentum.
The game was essentially over after three quarters, and James left to an ovation with six minutes remaining after securing his second triple-double of the season and the 41st of his career.
In this season of the unexpected, however, James again made a stir by unfollowing the Cavs from his Twitter account. James’ cryptic messages a few weeks ago on social media set the internet on fire, as did Monday’s revelation he no longer follows the Cavs.
Asked about the reasoning behind it, James stared down a reporter momentarily before responding simply, “Next question.”
The Cavs have fought to stay out of their own way most of the season. Locker room issues led to the firing of coach David Blatt at midseason, while the play of fellow stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love seemed to aggravate James at times this season.
Still, Cleveland remain atop the conference and hold a slim one-game lead on the Toronto Raptors for home-court advantage in the East playoffs. The Cavs’ blowout victory on Monday, led by a dazzling performance from James, followed an embarrassing loss at Miami on Saturday when Cleveland trailed by 33 in the fourth quarter. That is the way it has gone most of the season.
Even on Monday, the reserves let the Nuggets back in the game in the second quarter before the starters could put the game away in the second half.
“We definitely have to develop that killer instinct,” Lue said. “When we get up, we get cute – the fancy passes, we take a couple bad and questionable shots. We’ve got to continue to get better at that and continue to step on guys’ throats when we have them down.”
Cavs forward Channing Frye scored 14 points as a replacement for Love, who did not play because he was ill. J.R. Smith scored 15 points, and Matthew Dellavedova had 10 points and seven assists off the bench. Irving finished with eight points and three assists.
Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic each scored 11 points for the Nuggets, although Harris was a minus-45 during his 34 minutes.
“We got our butts kicked,” Malone said. “I’m not going to use any excuses for it. For the most part, they did whatever they wanted and we helped them do it.”