Nikola Jokic's Nuggets dismantle the Cavs, get one step closer to playoffs

Nikola Jokic lets one go over the outstretched arm of LeBron James. (Getty Images)
Nikola Jokic lets one go over the outstretched arm of LeBron James. (Getty Images)

Nikola Jokic has had a brilliant sophomore season, one that’s seen him skyrocket from under-the-radar second-round draft pick to burgeoning face of a Denver Nuggets franchise on the rise. But of all the milestones he’s mustered along the way — his first 30-point game, his first 40-point game, his first career triple-double (quickly followed by four more), his first major feature story in a national magazine — perhaps none indicates how far he’s come better than one late-third-quarter possession in Wednesday’s meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Serbian center had the ball matched up with LeBron James — four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA champion, the best player on the planet until he decides otherwise — on the left block … and the rest of the Nuggets spread out, so their big man could go to work. And he did. And LeBron didn’t give an inch.

And neither did Jokic.

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In the grand scheme of things, it’s one bucket, scored by a 6-foot-10 center over a 6-foot-8 forward. That’s how Jokic said he saw it after the game, anyway.

(Let the record reflect that 22-year-old Nikola Jokic, in the Year of Our Lord 2017, just said of drawing LeBron James on a switch, “I think that’s a mismatch for us.”)

But while Jokic might’ve shrugged it off, things mean things, and moments matter, and there’s a reason the crowd at Pepsi Center exploded like that. The Nuggets’ best guy went up against the best guy, and he won, and he did it in the context of Denver beating the brakes off the defending NBA champions.

“That’s a defining moment,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game. “With the whole crowd watching, anticipating what’s going to happen, it was a heavyweight fight. I’m sure Nikola will be showing that to his grandkids many years from now.”

In the here and now, it stands as the most recent evidence that Nikola Jokic has arrived — and that the Nuggets are coming with him.

After weathering recent rest controversies, the Cavs came into Denver at full strength, with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the lineup and their arsenal fully stocked. The Nuggets smoked them anyway, hitting the gas with a big 15-2 run midway through the second quarter and never looking back on their way to a 126-113 win.

“They played an exceptional game,” James said after a game in which he scored 18 points with six rebounds and five assists, but was a -30, the third-worst single-game plus-minus of his illustrious career. “I didn’t think our physicality was where it needed to be the way how well they moved bodies and moved the ball. They beat us pretty good.”

That they did.

Seven Nuggets scored in double figures on Wednesday, led by shooting guard Gary Harris (21 points on 8-for-14 shooting, four assists, three rebounds in 32 minutes) and reserve swingman Will Barton (20 points on 8-for-14 shooting, four rebounds, two assists, three steals). Denver ran the Cavs’ defense ragged, shooting 53.1 percent from the field, logging 35 assists (against just six turnovers) on 51 made field goals, and dominating Cleveland to the tune of a 70-30 edge in points in the paint in the win, which improved the Nuggets to 34-37, giving them a 1 1/2-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in the race for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot with 11 games remaining.

Portland’s got 12 left, but despite having one in hand and sitting just one back in the loss column, the Blazers have to be kicking themselves for dropping a game Tuesday to the Milwaukee Bucks in which they trailed by 15 in the third quarter, fought their way back to lead late and then went scoreless for the final 3:12 to lose by three. That bummer, combined with Denver straight-up whomping the champs, keeps the Nuggets in position to make their first playoff trip since 2013.

“This was the most important game of the season right now,” said Harris, according to Nick Kosmider of the Denver Post. “We’re in the playoff race, and the next one is going to be just as important.”

The win ended a two-game skid for the Nuggets, who have now won five of seven and eight of 12. They’ve been fueled, as they have all season, by Jokic, who turned in another stellar game on Wednesday, scoring 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting with 10 rebounds and seven assists — his 32nd double-double of the season, the most by a Nugget in a decade — in just under 29 minutes of work, continuing to cement himself as one of the game’s most offensively gifted and valuable centers.

But the big man had plenty of help. Rookie Jamal Murray drilled three 3-pointers to help spark the second-quarter run that put Denver in front for good. Kenneth Faried attacked the glass and the rim, and gave great energy on the defensive end, to help stave off a Cleveland run in the third quarter. Wilson Chandler came back from a groin injury to play 40 minutes, scoring 18 points and making LeBron work for his own 18 all night.

“It’s a very ecstatic locker room right now because it was a hell of a win and everybody contributed,” Malone said after the game, according to Harrison Wind of BSNDenver.com.

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The Nuggets are still a ways away from punching their ticket to the postseason, but with performances like their recent blowout of the Golden State Warriors and Wednesday’s convincing win over the Cavs, they’re doing what they can to convince doubters out there that their elite offense — they average 110.1 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the league (and an NBA-best 114.2 points-per-100 since Dec. 15, which just so happens to be the date Jokic went into the starting lineup) — a legitimate threat to not only make the playoffs, but maybe even make a little noise once they get there.

“Oh, I think we’re going all the way to the Finals,” Malone joked when asked what he thought Denver’s recent success against Golden State and Cleveland signified. “No, you know what it says? It says that we’re a team that has a lot of talent, that we believe in each other, we believe in the process that we’re embarking upon and that great things are in store for us, whether that’s this season, whether that’s in the future.”

Whatever may come for the Nuggets down the line, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they’re a problem right now. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the King. He got a pretty close look late in the third quarter on Wednesday.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!