DENVER — On nearly 31-year-old legs, LeBron James found a little more elevation for all his emphatic dunks.
Has to be the thin air of Denver, he concluded.
“When the air is thick, it kind of holds me back a little bit when I jump,” James joked. “I was trying to put a staple in the game.”
James scored 34 points on the eve of his birthday, Iman Shumpert added a season-high 16 and the Cavaliers beat the Nuggets 93-87 on Tuesday night.
This win was the perfect early gift as the Cavaliers finish off a four-game West Coast swing with a 2-2 mark. But what James really wants for a present? Time with his family. That and maybe a couple of actual presents because, contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t have everything.
“It’s become an excuse,” James playfully said of his family and friend not knowing what to get him. “They’re like, ‘What do we get someone who has everything?’ That’s what I hear.”
Cavaliers coach David Blatt has the ideal gift for his star player.
“Peace and quiet,” Blatt said. “That’s what I would give him. Even a day, where nobody bothers him.”
The Cavaliers rested Kyrie Irving on the second night of a back-to-back as he works his way back from a fractured left kneecap. No trouble as Kevin Love helped pick up the slack with eight points and 14 rebounds in Cleveland’s fourth game in five nights.
“We wanted and felt that we needed to finish this trip strong, to get a couple of wins, to go into the new year with good momentum and a good feeling,” Blatt said.
Reserve Will Barton had 29 for the injury-riddled Nuggets, who’ve now dropped six of seven. They were once again without Danilo Gallinari (sprained left ankle) and rookie Emmanuel Mudiay (sprained right ankle).
“If we were healthy and fully loaded, I’m sure we would play a little bit better,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But I’m not going to use that as an excuse for our loss tonight.”
Trailing by 11 with 3:07 remaining, the Nuggets resorted to fouling Tristan Thompson, who’s a 56 percent free throw shooter. Thompson struggled at the line, hitting 1 of 4, but Denver couldn’t capitalize.
James put the finishing touches on the win with a windmill dunk late in the game. On his way back down the court, James smiled at retired NBA player and Denver native Chauncey Billups, who was sitting courtside.
As for what James said, well, he preferred to keep that quiet.
“Always great to see him,” James said.
James nearly outscored Denver’s starters by himself — 35-34.
“When he sees that ball go in the basket a couple of times from the perimeter, the basket gets bigger and bigger,” Malone said. “He got into a rhythm.”
Cavaliers: J.R. Smith had 11 points against his former team. … Here was a quirky state from the first half: The Cavaliers didn’t shoot a free throw. This from a team that’s averaging 22 free throws a game. … It was Love’s 14th double-double of the season.
Nuggets: Malone said Gallinari is closer to a return than Mudiay. Gallinari may be ready Saturday at Golden State. … C Jusuf Nurkic (torn left patellar tendon) could soon make his season debut this weekend. “If he’s cleared to play on [Saturday], it’s a situation where he will play no more than 15 minutes,” Malone explained.
HARD TO PICK
Having been an assistant at Golden State and Cleveland, Malone was asked who’s better between Stephen Curry and James.
Not surprisingly, he played it safe by picking both.
“I’m not going to say one is better than the other. I would love to coach either one of them,” Malone said.
James had quite a juke in the second quarter, when his fake on Kostas Papanikolaou opened up the lane for a powerful dunk. It was a long night for Papanikolaou trying to defend James.
“That’s why he is one of the best players in the league,” Papanikolaou said.
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