Nuggets praise LeBron, waive goodbye to playoff spot

Fighting for their playoff lives, the Denver Nuggets were dealt a blow Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center.

Namely, LeBron James.

The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar scored his team’s final nine points, finishing with 39 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists, in leading the Cavaliers to a 113-108 victory, their second straight overall and their fifth consecutive road triumph.

The loss dropped the Nuggets (35-30) into ninth place in the Western Conference standings, one spot out of the eighth and final playoff spot, now occupied by the Los Angeles Clippers (34-29).

James’ performance, though, left the Nuggets a bit awestruck.

The 33-year-old, 15-year veteran, with the Cavs clinging to a two-point lead with 2:42 to play, powered to the rack, being fouled and finishing through contact. After a basket by Denver’s Nikola Jokic (36 points, in 12-of-14 shooting, 13 boards, 6 dimes), James drained what was described on the game’s final play-by-play sheet as a 29-foot 3-pointer, then put a bow on his takeover with a pair of right-to-left, fadeaway jumpers that drew nothing but net, despite terrific defense by Denver’s Wilson Chandler. After the second of his two curtain-droppers, James ended up in the first row of seats courtside.

“That’s why he’s the best in the league right now,” Jokic said. “He’s making the tough shots.”

“Tough shots” doesn’t do what James did justice.

“Down the stretch, obviously, he showed again why he’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone, a former assistant coach for the Cavaliers, side. “When LeBron James is making 3-point shots, it’s nearly impossible to guard him.”

James made 5-of-8 from long distance Wednesday night as Cleveland (37-25) avenged a 126-117 loss to Denver on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.

Jokic said he’d gladly trade his 36-point performance for what Denver desperately needs most, a win.

“That’s how the game opened up for me,” he said. “We all would rather have a win than my (36) points.”

Mason Plumlee said the Nuggets, who dropped a 118-107 verdict at Dallas to the 20-45 Mavericks the night before bowing to the Cavaliers.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves on a back-to-back to come in here and get a win against a fresh team who we just saw four or five days earlier,” he said. “We needed one of the two, and we didn’t get any. Each game becomes bigger.”

Gary Harris said much the same.

“We can’t afford to drop two (in a row) anymore,” he said. “I feel like every game’s a must-win. That’s why we can’t drop games like we did last night (in Dallas). It’s over in the past. We’ve got to move forward.

“These last 17, we’ve got to be locked in.”