CLEVELAND: There is one question that always makes Denver Nuggets coach George Karl bristle, and it has to do with the composition of his roster. The Nuggets have plenty of terrific players, but no elite superstar.
History dictates they’ll struggle to win a title without one, but it didn’t prevent them from handling the Cavaliers 111-103 on Saturday, ending the Cavs’ three-game winning streak.
The Nuggets pounded the Cavs inside, grabbed key rebounds in the fourth quarter and led the entire half on the strength of their post players.
The Nuggets are the league’s hottest team and have won nine in a row for their longest winning streak in eight years.
“Just one of those games you throw away and get ready for Monday,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said.
Kyrie Irving had 26 points and seven assists, but struggled with foul trouble. He picked up two bad fouls in the final minute of the first half, then was whistled for his fourth with 5:20 left in the third quarter.
Scott pulled him from the game with the Cavs behind by 10, although the deficit was only 11 when he returned for the start of the fourth quarter.
“Honestly I didn’t think Coach was going to take me out, but he did,” Irving said. “That fourth foul was key.”
For the second time in as many nights, the Cavs were dominated in the post. Only this time, the guards weren’t able to bail them out.
Andre Miller snuck through a sea of Cavs big men for a tip-in with 6:06 left to put the Nuggets ahead by 11. Then when Miller missed the second of two free throws a few minutes later, Timofey Mozgov grabbed the rebound over two Cavs and Danilo Gallinari converted with a 3-pointer, pushing the Nuggets’ lead to 105-93 with 4:39 left.
It was that kind of night for the Cavs, who were outscored in the paint 62-32 after the Nuggets scored 58 in the lane against them last month in Denver.
“They killed us in the paint,” Irving said. “We just have to take it as a challenge going forward for teams living in our paint.”
Tristan Thompson had 11 points and four rebounds and Tyler Zeller and Mo Speights combined to shoot 2-of-13. Neither made a basket until the fourth quarter.
Zeller also struggled mightily in Friday’s victory against the Orlando Magic, failing to take a shot while getting dominated by Magic center Nikola Vucevic. It was much of the same Saturday, although he did grab six rebounds.
Kenneth Faried had 17 points, JaVale McGee had 13 and Kosta Koufos had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Nuggets, who had eight players in double figures and whose reputation as a team that feasts on turnovers and fast breaks is well deserved.
Considered perhaps the best team in the league at turning steals into points, the Nuggets had 19 fast-break points and led for the entire second half.
They are a team of collective stars without an elite player. That’s just fine with Karl.
“There are only about 10 or 11 superstars in the league,” he said before the game. “There are a lot of really good players and we have a lot of really good, young players. And it’s a team game. I don’t care what you say. You can talk superstar, you can talk special talent, great big guys, great guards, great point guards, at the end of the game, the champion we will crown in June is always the team that plays as a team and plays with the team mentality first and not talent first.
“We’re going to try to shock the world and become the first team to win a championship without a superstar — or without an All-Star.”
The loss overshadowed a surprisingly productive night from Gee, who matched the number of baskets he’d made over the previous five games. Gee was 8-of-8 shooting, but six of those shots came in the first quarter when he had half of the Cavs’ 32 points.
“Just got my legs back, but it didn’t help out much because we still got the loss,” Gee said.
After the hot start, which included three 3-pointers in the first quarter, he took only two shots the rest of the night.
“I went back to doing what I do, playing defense,” he said. “That’s my main focus. I look at defense first, if it comes [on offense], it comes.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.