Nuggets take big step toward playoffs with rout of defending champion Cavaliers

They all cleared out and let The Joker go to work against The King.

Nikola Jokic , the rising star of the Nuggets, against LeBron James of the Cavaliers, the player Jokic and countless others consider to be the best in basketball.

Jokic pounded the ball into the floor and lowered his shoulder as he threw his 6-foot-10 frame against the 250-pound mass of James. He subtly faked a spin one way, then turned the other way. The soft hook shot dropped through the net and the Pepsi Center exploded.

Jokic won the marquee battle. Then the Nuggets polished off their biggest win of the season.

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Six players scored at least 16 points for Denver as the Nuggets routed the defending champion Cavaliers 126-113 in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of 19,718.

Sure, there were plenty of Cavaliers fans in the building. But the Nuggets contingent provided a possible preview of how it will shake the building should the home team hang on it its pursuit of a playoff spot. The Nuggets increased their lead over Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference to 1½ games.

Kenneth Faried was the difference in the second half, shifting the tide with his trademark energy. The Cavaliers had turned up the defense to trim a lead that was as large as 20 points to 86-81 midway through the third quarter.

Faried then scored seven points in less than two minutes by running to the rim. Throw in a 3-pointer from Gary Harris , who scored 19 points, and the Nuggets had pushed the lead back to 13 points.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” Faried said. “Tonight we came out with the energy we needed.”

The Nuggets cruised from there in a game that didn’t lack for highlights.

Jamal Murray provided the first big batch of them for Denver. Given the absence of fear with which Murray lets the ball fly, it’s easy to forget he was playing in the NCAA Tournament at this time last season.

The Nuggets led 41-40 with 8:54 left in the second quarter. Just 83 seconds later, Murray had drained three 3-pointers and the Nuggets were up 50-40. The lead expanded to 20 points in the period, with Murray scoring 13 points.

The Nuggets hit 9-of-16 shots (56.3 percent) from 3-point range in the first half, with their looks created by constant movement and motion. The Denver offense was a blur of drives and cuts, extra passes and quick-release jumpers. In short, the defending champs had no answer for anything the Nuggets threw at them in the first half.

The Nuggets seemed to be emboldened by a play in the first half when Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson caught Juancho Hernangomez with an arm to the face. Denver went on a 13-2 run after the play to balloon its lead to 69-49.

Cleveland, the NBA’s second-best 3-point shooting team, was able to stay in shouting distance by connecting from long range. The Cavs hit 15-of-37 3-pointers, rescuing themselves with a big shot each time it seemed the Nuggets would run away.

Kyrie Irving scored 33 points and hit 4-of-5 3-pointers, nearly lifting the Cavs to a lead after their big deficit.

But the Nuggets simply wouldn’t stop scoring. Will Barton led the way with 20 points. Faried finished with 17 and nine rebounds. Jokic had 16 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

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