Cavaliers forward Channing Frye, right, fouls Nuggets guard Jamal Murray as he drives to the basket in the second half Wednesday night in Denver. The Nuggets won 126-113. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
DENVER — 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 Cleveland 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. Jokic subtly faked a spin one way, then turned the other way. The soft hook shot dropped through the net Wednesday night and the Pepsi Center exploded.
“That’s a defining moment,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “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.”
The defining play for Jokic was part of what could be considered the defining win of the season for the Nuggets.
Six players scored at least 16 points for Denver as the Nuggets routed the defending NBA champion Cavaliers 126-113 in front of a raucous sellout 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 in its pursuit of a playoff spot. The Nuggets (34-37) increased their lead over Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference to 1½ games.
“This was the most important game of the season right now,” said Gary Harris, who led the Nuggets with 21 points. “We’re in the playoff race, and the next one is going to be just as important.”
The nature of a tight playoff race is that every game carries heightened significance, but the Nuggets took a few minutes to enjoy beating the Cavaliers.
“It means were going to the Finals,” Malone joked, adding that the team was “ecstatic” in the locker room.
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 Harris and the Nuggets had pushed the lead back to 13 points.
“He really just came in and changed the game,” Mason Plumlee said of Faried.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” Faried said. “Tonight we came out with the energy we needed.”