It may be the only visit of the season to the Mile High City for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Denver Nuggets said on Tuesday morning after shootaround that they are approaching it just like any other game.
“I get fired up every game. I approach every game the same,” said Will Barton, who has come off the Denver bunch to score in double-digits in 16 consecutive games to boost his average to 15.8 points per outing. “Go into attack mode and try to get a win and do whatever I can to make winning plays for my team.”
Denver head coach Michael Malone has a deep knowledge of James and the Cleveland organization, serving as an assistant coach under Mike Brown for the Cavaliers for five seasons, during which the Cavs posted a 272-138 (.663) record, the third-best mark in the NBA over that span. Still, Malone says it’s much more about focusing on his team and what the Nuggets need to do to win than anticipating Cleveland’s lone visit of the season.
“I’m juiced all the time. I don’t care who’s in the building,” Malone smiled. “Having had a chance to coach LeBron for five years, obviously I know the special player that he is. I’m sure with the team we’re playing, we’ll have a great crowd tonight in anticipation of LeBron and the Cavaliers being here but I’m juiced for us to come out here and get a home win and break a two-game losing streak.”
Malone acknowledged that he expects a lot of Cleveland fans in attendance on Tuesday night, a pattern that has played out for the visiting teams over the past few games and one that the Denver head coach hopes to see change in the near future.
“The (Los Angeles) Lakers game (on December 22) stands out,” Malone said. “Kobe is one of the greatest players to ever play. The Lakers are like the Dallas Cowboys. They’re America’s team so wherever Kobe goes, there will be a great crowd because of his retirement. You’d love for the building to be packed and all of those fans rooting for you so it’s a true home-court advantage but, right now, we’re not there yet. That’s something that we’re working toward. As we get better and improve, hopefully we’ll get our fans back where we have a real home-court advantage and the fans are making it very tough for the opposing team.”
Denver will battle Cleveland without Emmanuel Mudiay and Danilo Gallinari, both of whom are nursing ankle injuries and are unlikely to play again until after the new year begins. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers announced earlier that Kyrie Irving will miss the Denver game as he continues to recover from knee surgery and rests after playing in Cleveland’s 101-97 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
“They’ve played most of the season without Kyrie,” Malone said. “I’m happy to see Kyrie getting back into form. He’s made some big plays for them down the stretch. As an NBA coach, you always like to see teams and players healthy. You don’t wish ill will on anybody so the fact that Kyrie is back and helping them is great. He’ll miss tonight but (Matthew) Dellavedova is more than capable. He’s played big for them in playoff minutes and NBA Finals minutes and has done a very good job for them this season. Mo Williams is a former All-Star backing him up off the bench. With Kyrie not playing, they’re down a very good basketball player but they’ve shown their bench players can step up in big situations.”
Cleveland (20-9) is just 7-8 on the road this season and has dropped two of its first three games on its current four-game trip through the Western Conference. Denver (12-19) has lost two consecutive games (on the road to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder) and is just 5-9 at home.
“I think we competed hard,” Barton said of Denver’s two-game slide. “We had a tough back-to-back in San Antonio and Oklahoma City on the road. Playing two tough teams in two great environments. We played tough. We did some really good things but we just couldn’t make the plays at the end to get the win. Hopefully we can learn from those situations.”