CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers are getting worse by the game, especially defensively.
Struggling Cleveland lost for the fourth time in its last five home games, falling 126-117 to the red-hot Denver Nuggets on Saturday night at The Q.
The slumping Cavs fell to 36-26 and just 1-3 on their current five-game homestand, which appeared to represent an excellent opportunity to go 4-1 or even 5-0. From the big-picture standpoint, subtract an 18-1 stretch and Cleveland is 18-25 on the season.
With Kevin Love out with a broken hand, the Cavs’ lone win in their last five home games was a 129-123 victory over the lowly Brooklyn Nets, and Cleveland had to score on its last eight possessions to pull that one out.
“There’s no reason to tip our head down,” said new point guard George Hill, who had 17 points. “We’ve got to keep our head high and figure it out.”
The Cavs held the Nuggets (35-28), who were on the second night of a back-to-back road set, to 23 points in the fourth quarter. Problem was, they gave up 103 over the first three periods, including 73 in the first half.
Cleveland trailed just 115-114 with 2:40 left after a pair of free throws by LeBron James, who tied his career high with his 13th triple-double of the season (25 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists), but the Nuggets responded with an 11-0 run to ice the game.
Shooting guard Gary Harris (32 points) hit a big 3-pointer in that stretch, then delivered the dagger with another as Denver finished the game 19-for-35 from behind the arc (.543) to Cleveland’s 9-for-24 (.375).
“Gary Harris was hot from the beginning all the way to the end,” said James, who played 42 minutes, including all but the last 20.7 seconds of the second half.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said James asked to stay in to start the fourth period with Cleveland down six, but the four-time league MVP had a slightly different take.
“He asked me if I was tired and I said no,” James said. “I didn’t ask to stay in.”
Then there was the enigma that is J.R. Smith, who played 14:34 in the first half and didn’t attempt a shot, then scored 19 points in the second. Smith was 7-for-8 at one point and a large reason why the Cavs had a chance to pull out a win, but he missed his last four shots.
“I really didn’t see many opportunities (in the first half),” said Smith, who was coming off a one-game suspension for throwing a bowl of soup at assistant coach Damon Jones. “The second half I figured, ‘The hell with this’ and got aggressive.”
Smith had nine quick points in the third period, but it didn’t help as the Cavs fell behind by 15. Cleveland, however, closed the quarter on a 13-4 run behind a pair of 3-pointers by Hill to make it a 103-97 game heading into the fourth.
The Nuggets, who are battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, answered each and every challenge.
“When we get down one, we’ve got to find a way to get a stop,” James said.
Getting a few in the first half wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
The defenseless Cavs gave up 37 points and were fortunate to trail by only six after the first quarter, during which Smith played eight minutes and didn’t register any type of statistic — other than a great 70-foot pro bowling imitation pass to an official.
Aside from a fantastic dunking exhibition by Nance, the second period didn’t go any better. Cleveland trailed by as many as 14 before the Nuggets, who shot .596 from the field and got 19 points from Harris, settled for a 73-62 halftime lead.
“They had it going tonight,” Lue said of the Nuggets, who also got 23 points from reserve Will Barton, 16 from Wilson Chandler and nine points, seven boards and eight assists from big man Nikola Jokic.
In addition to James, Hill and Smith, the Cavs got 14 points (all in the first half) and eight rebounds from Nance, 13 points from Cedi Osman, 12 points and seven boards from Tristan Thompson and 11 points from Jordan Clarkson.
All Cleveland starters finished with a negative plus-minus, with everyone at least a minus-13 other than James, who was a minus-6. Rodney Hood (minus-1) was the only bench player in the negative on a night when Kyle Korver played just 7:16 and didn’t get off the bench in the second half.
Nuggets 126, Cavs 117
DENVER (126): Chandler 7-10 0-0 16, Millsap 4-9 2-2 11, Jokic 3-8 2-3 9, Murray 6-11 1-1 16, G.Harris 10-17 6-6 32, Jefferson 2-2 0-0 4, Plumlee 4-7 0-0 8, D.Harris 1-3 1-2 4, Beasley 1-2 0-0 3, Barton 9-17 1-1 23. Totals 47-86 13-15 126.
CLEVELAND (117): James 8-19 8-11 25, Osman 6-7 0-0 13, Thompson 6-10 0-1 12, Hill 6-10 2-2 17, Smith 7-12 3-4 19, Nance Jr. 6-10 2-2 14, Perrantes 0-0 0-0 0, Hood 3-9 0-0 6, Holland 0-0 0-0 0, Clarkson 4-9 1-1 11, Korver 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 46-88 16-21 117.
Denver 37 36 30 23 — 126
Cleveland 31 31 35 20 — 117
3-Point Goals—Denver 19-35 (G.Harris 6-10, Barton 4-10, Murray 3-4, Chandler 2-4, Beasley 1-1, Millsap 1-2, D.Harris 1-2, Jokic 1-2), Cleveland 9-24 (Hill 3-4, Clarkson 2-3, Smith 2-5, Osman 1-2, James 1-4, Nance Jr. 0-1, Korver 0-1, Hood 0-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Denver 35 (Barton 8), Cleveland 41 (James 10). Assists—Denver 35 (Jokic 8), Cleveland 25 (James 15). Total Fouls—Denver 19, Cleveland 16. Technicals—Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. A—20,562 (20,562).