DENVER (AP) " LeBron James's forgettable night included some statistical oddities, like his team being 30 points down through the 34 minutes he was on court, and being the only player on either team to miss a free throw.
In East-leading Cleveland's stunningly thorough 126-113 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, James saw his Cavaliers get outscored 70-30 in the paint.
And the most painful of those points had to be from Nikola Jokic, who backed down James in the paint in a pivotal third-quarter possession, fending off plenty of contact for a hook shot that rocked the Pepsi Center.
"Nikola is not going to back down from anybody, and I think you've seen that from our team a little bit, whether we're playing Golden State, Cleveland, Boston, whoever it is, we're not going to back down," coach Michael Malone said after his Nuggets increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.
Malone said that basket, which gave Denver a 99-83 lead and highlighted a 15-3 game-sealing run, would go down as a defining moment in Jokic's blossoming career.
"LeBron will go down as one of the best players to ever play the game," Malone said.
"It's like a heavyweight fight and Nikola backing him down to finish, I think the crowd erupted in celebration because it was like a defining moment for Nikola.
"I'm sure Nikola will be showing that to his grandkids many years from now."
Maybe so, but in the aftermath of this crucial win, Jokic shrugged it off like it was any other play against any other player.
"I just tried to score," the second-year Serbian said with a shrug. "I didn't think that was him or whatever, I just wanted to score. That's it."
Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.
"They played an exceptional game," James said. "I didn't think our physicality was where it needed to be the way ... they moved bodies and moved the ball. They beat us pretty good."
The Nuggets had 35 assists and only six turnovers.
"We found the open man all night long," Malone said. "We scored 70 points in the paint, held them to 30. Obviously, defense was solid enough to get the win. But I'm just so proud of the guys. It's a very ecstatic locker room right now because it was a hell of a win and everybody contributed."
The Nuggets have beaten both of last year's Finals teams in the last six weeks. They walloped Golden State 132-110 on Feb. 13.
What does that mean?
"It says that we're a team that has a lot of talent, that we believe in each other, we believe in the process that we're embarking upon and that great things are in store for us, whether that's this season, whether that's in the future."
As for Cleveland, James said the physicality will be there when it matters most.
"Playoffs not here yet," he said.
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This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings