Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith reacts after hitting a three-point shot during the first half on December 2, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo
The Denver Nuggets are off to one of their quickest starts in team history and it is because of their ability to find ways to finish off some of those victories.
With six wins in their first seven games for the first time since the 1985-86 season, the Nuggets visit the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday night in a matchup of teams with inverse records.
The Nuggets began the 1985-86 season with six straight wins before taking a 29-point loss to the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers. This season, their lone defeat is last Thursday's 121-114 road loss to the Lakers.
The Nuggets are 6-1 or better through their first seven games for the third time in their NBA history after escaping Chicago with a 108-107 win over the Bulls on Wednesday. Paul Millsap converted the game-winning putback of a missed shot by Nikola Jokic with 0.1 left on the clock in overtime to give Denver its third win decided by five points or less.
The other close wins were a 100-98 win over Golden State on Oct. 21 and Monday's 116-111 win over New Orleans. Those wins saw the Nuggets get outscored by a combined 13 points in the fourth quarter, but Wednesday, neither team led by more than nine points and Denver overcame a six-point deficit in the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation.
"All games are not going to be pretty," Millsap said. "You're not going to shoot the lights out all the time, but the way that we're winning games is something special, especially with young guys."
Jokic led Denver with 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists while Millsap finished with 19 points on a night when Denver experienced a mixed bag on offense. The Nuggets shot 45 percent, scored 62 points in the paint and allowed 24 points off 16 turnovers.
"When it hit the rim, I figured I'd get position and try to put it back up as fast as I can," Millsap said. "The magnitude that we're winning games with is something special -- especially with a lot of young guys that learn how to win without making shots."
Cleveland's inability to stop teams from making shots is among the reasons it is off to its first 1-6 start since 2001-02 and amongst the reasons why Larry Drew replaced Tyronn Lue on Sunday. Cleveland is allowing 117.9 points and a league-worst 51.5 percent shooting.
The Cavaliers avoided their first 0-7 start since 1995-96 by getting a 136-114 home win over the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks hit 22 3-pointers and scored 133 on Cleveland Oct. 21 in a game that might have been the beginning of the end for Lue.
Drew is hoping to iron out details of a new contract with Cleveland. In the meantime, the Cavaliers hope to produce a similar result as Tuesday when seven reached double figures, shot 50 percent and forced 22 turnovers.
"I really didn't know what was going to happen tonight," Drew said. "I just wanted these guys to try and put the first six games behind them as quickly as they could and be ready to turn the chapter with a new season. They came out and took the challenge."
Rodney Hood scored a season-high 26 points and Cedi Osman added 20 on a night when Cleveland posted 23 assists.
"I thought we played a whole lot more unselfish tonight," Cleveland forward Larry Nance Jr. said. "Guys were starting to hit the open man and we had a few possessions of like three or four extra passes and that's a first. Hopefully, we can learn from that and carry it over."
The Cavs are 26th in assists at 20.9 per game and are hoping to follow up Tuesday's showing against a defense who allows the fourth-fewest points per game at 103.9.
The Cavs played without Kevin Love for the third straight game and will not see him in uniform for the foreseeable future due to a sore left foot. Love is hoping his absence only lasts two to three weeks after getting an MRI and consultation on the foot.
In the meantime, Love is in a walking boot and will figure it out from there while Sam Dekker starts at forward in his place.
"I would like to get back obviously as soon as possible," Love told reporters. "I had high hopes for the season, I know it's been off to a really rocky start, but the more I can be out there and help this team the better. I'm hoping to get out there as quickly as possible and hoping that it's only two or three weeks."