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Cleveland Cavaliers blast Denver Nuggets, clinch Central title

By The Sports Xchange   |   March 22, 2016 at 12:52 AM

CLEVELAND -- It isn't the title they ultimately desire, but it's a start. The real work is yet to come for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

LeBron James had 33 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Cavs used a new-look defense to clinch the Central Division title with a 124-91 victory Monday night against the Denver Nuggets.

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Cleveland (50-20) endured frustrating moments of inconsistency throughout the season, but it still sealed the fifth division crown in team history and its ninth 50-win season.

"All is not bad," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "We're still growing, we're still getting better on a night-to-night basis and we can celebrate this, but we gotta keep moving forward."

The Cavs scrapped some of their defensive principles that haven't been working the last few weeks and returned to the simplified format that carried them to the NBA Finals last season. They held the Nuggets to 39.5 percent shooting Monday and led by as many as 36 in the fourth quarter after Denver's five starters combined to match James' 33 points.

"It was embarrassing," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "An embarrassing effort. I haven't seen that from our team most of the year. I'm very disappointed with that."

The Cavs built a 19-point lead in the first quarter when they scored 38 points, their most in an opening quarter all season. However, they give it all back in the second when Nuggets reserve guard Will Barton scored 16 of his team-high 27.

Cleveland went scoreless for more than six minutes while the Nuggets scored 17 consecutive points mainly off the Cavs' reserves. When James and the starters returned, the Cavs reclaimed momentum.

The game was essentially over after three quarters, and James left to an ovation with six minutes remaining after securing his second triple-double of the season and the 41st of his career.

In this season of the unexpected, however, James again made a stir by unfollowing the Cavs from his Twitter account. James' cryptic messages a few weeks ago on social media set the internet on fire, as did Monday's revelation he no longer follows the Cavs.

Asked about the reasoning behind it, James stared down a reporter momentarily before responding simply, "Next question."

The Cavs have fought to stay out of their own way most of the season. Locker room issues led to the firing of coach David Blatt at midseason, while the play of fellow stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love seemed to aggravate James at times this season.

Still, Cleveland remains atop the conference and holds a slim one-game lead on the Toronto Raptors for home-court advantage in the East playoffs. The Cavs' blowout victory Monday, led by a dazzling performance from James, followed an embarrassing loss at Miami on Saturday when Cleveland trailed by 33 in the fourth quarter. That is the way it has gone most of the season.

Even Monday, the reserves let the Nuggets back in the game in the second quarter before the starters could put the game away in the second half.

"We definitely have to develop that killer instinct," Lue said. "When we get up, we get cute -- the fancy passes, we take a couple bad and questionable shots. We've got to continue to get better at that and continue to step on guys' throats when we have them down."

Cavs forward Channing Frye scored 14 points as a replacement for Love, who did not play because he was ill. J.R. Smith scored 15 points, and Matthew Dellavedova had 10 points and seven assists off the bench. Irving finished with eight points and three assists.

Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic each scored 11 points for the Nuggets, although Harris was a minus-45 during his 34 minutes.

"We got our butts kicked," Malone said. "I'm not going to use any excuses for it. For the most part, they did whatever they wanted and we helped them do it."

NOTES: Denver F Kenneth Faried missed his third game with a sore back. ... Denver F JaKarr Sampson, who attended Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, the same high school as LeBron James, left in the first half with a strained left shoulder and did not return. Nuggets coach Mike Malone did not have an update on him after the game. ... Malone spent five years as an assistant coach with the Cavaliers during LeBron James' first stop in Cleveland. Malone said his fondest memories were the team's improbable run to the 2007 NBA Finals, including James' epic performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when he scored 28 of the Cavs' final 30 points at Detroit. ... Cleveland F Kevin Love (illness) missed his fourth game of the season. The Cavs are 4-0 without him. ... The Cleveland defense has slipped significantly since Tyronn Lue took over as head coach, but Lue said Monday the Cavs are going to simplify things. "Our defense is going to get better," Lue said, "and I take full blame for that. We're trying to do some different things, and now we just got to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation."

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