The Cleveland Cavaliers faded down the stretch in LeBron James’ first two seasons in the NBA. The Cavaliers, though, have learned how to make a playoff push, and are streaking toward the finish line for the second straight year.
The Cavaliers, winners of nine of their last 11 games, look to continue their run at a division title and the best record in the Eastern Conference when they host the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.
Cleveland (42-27) slipped this week when back-to-back losses derailed its eight-game win streak, the team’s longest since winning nine in a row in last season’s stretch drive.
The Cavs, though, bounced back with a 90-68 victory over New York on Friday, improving to 9-3 this month and pulling within 1 1/2 games of Detroit for the Central Division lead and top seed in the East.
A division title would be the Cavs’ first since the 1975-76 season.
“I want a division championship banner for this team and for the city of Cleveland,” said James, who had 21 points and 10 assists Sunday.
The Cavaliers made a similar run last season, when they won 14 of their last 17 games to secure the fourth seed in the East. In the previous two seasons, they struggled in the spring, losing 19 of their last 30 in 2005 and 11 of their last 15 in 2004—missing the playoffs both times.
“Guys know how important April and May is and we’re doing a good job of going out there and just playing well,” James said. “No matter what the circumstances are, we definitely execute and we’re definitely playing a lot of good team basketball and it’s resulting in a lot of wins for us.”
James and the Cavaliers will be facing a Denver team with little hope of defending its Northwest Division title. The Nuggets (34-33) probably won’t catch division-leading Utah, but they are still in position to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Denver is in seventh place in the West, trailing the sixth-place Los Angeles Lakers by two games.
Like Cleveland, Denver recently had a win streak snapped by consecutive losses. The Nuggets had matched their season high with five straight wins before falling at Chicago on Thursday and at Toronto on Friday.
They missed their first 15 shots and were outscored 36-15 in the first quarter in their 121-94 loss to the Raptors.
Carmelo Anthony, the league’s second-leading scorer at 29.3 points per game, had a season-low 10 points. He and Allen Iverson, fifth in the league at 27.6 points per game, combined to shoot 6-of-27 from the field.
“I am not too concerned about that,” Anthony said. “(We) will put this game behind us, we have to learn from it, try and get better and go into Cleveland and try and win another one.”
The back-to-back losses dropped Denver to 3-6 in its last nine road games as it winds down a five-game road trip, which ends Monday at Detroit.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have won seven of eight at home and own the best home record in the East at 27-9.
This matchup will be the eighth between these teams since drafting James and Anthony with the first and third picks of the 2003 NBA draft, respectively. The Nuggets have a 5-2 advantage in the series since that draft, including a 2-1 record in Cleveland.
Denver won the last meeting 110-99 on Jan. 19 despite being without Anthony due to a league suspension. James had 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.