Friday, December 19, 2008
LeBron James is playing so well that he's even drawing standing ovations during road games.
The Denver Nuggets are hoping their fans are cheering for a different reason Friday, as the Nuggets look to avoid their first back-to-back losses since acquiring Chauncey Billups when they host James' red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs' 11-game winning streak ended Saturday night at Atlanta, but they bounced right back with a 93-70 victory over lowly Minnesota on Wednesday - their 20th in 22 games.
After James scored 32 points on 14-of-20 shooting, he left the court with Minnesota's fans standing and cheering, even though most of the crowd had departed before the end of the Timberwolves' 11th straight loss.
``You can never be prepared for something like that, being on the road,'' James said. ``It's great. ... I really appreciate it.''
Delonte West added a season-high 21 points for Cleveland (21-4), which is without center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and guard Daniel Gibson.
As Ilgauskas battles a sprained ankle and Gibson deals with a sprained toe, West has taken more shots in each of the last three games than in any other contest this season. Anderson Varejao has also stepped up, starting in place of Ilgauskas and notching his second double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds against Minnesota.
The key, though, remains James, who has been predictably prolific this season. He ranks second in the NBA with 27.3 points per game and is the only player in the league averaging more than 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
James has also been the catalyst as the Cavaliers have become the NBA's best defense team at 89.2 points allowed per game - fewest in the league. Cleveland coach Mike Brown said James' communication and positioning at the defensive end has been the key.
``When you've got your leader doing that type of stuff on that end of the floor,'' Brown said, ``it's very contagious.''
The arrival of Billups, meanwhile, has helped tighten up Denver's defense. The Nuggets (17-8) allowed 107.0 points per game last season - 29th in the NBA - which was a primary factor in them being eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the fifth straight season.
This season, the Nuggets are giving up nearly nine fewer points per contest and have held opponents to 42.7 percent shooting - the league's third-best mark behind Boston and Cleveland.
The Nuggets are 16-5 since Billups returned to his hometown in a four-player trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit on Nov. 3. Billups is averaging 18.2 points and 7.0 assists with Denver, which hasn't lost consecutive games since Nov. 1 and 5.
The Nuggets, however, had their four-game winning streak snapped Tuesday in a 108-96 loss at Houston, as Billups was held to eight points and Denver played what coach George Karl called its ``worst defensive game of the year.''
Carmelo Anthony had 22 points for the Nuggets. He's scoring 21.3 points per game this season - more than four below his 2007-08 mark - but has averaged 29.3 points over his last four games while shooting 12-of-20 from 3-point range.
The Cavs have lost their last three games in Denver, the most recent a 122-100 defeat Nov. 12, 2007, but they snapped a five-game skid against the Nuggets with a 110-99 win in Cleveland on Nov. 13.
``Any time I play LeBron and we play Cleveland it's a fun game. That's the way it is, there's so much hype around the game,'' Anthony said that night.
The two stars have been good friends since both players were chosen among the top three picks of the 2003 draft.