DENVER — Veteran Channing Frye couldn’t help but exhale when reflecting on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ brutal season-long six-game road trip that mercifully ended in Denver with a 124-102 loss on Saturday night.
Frye knew exactly what Cleveland was up against.
The Cavs went to six cities in 12 days. They played five teams currently in the playoff picture and another (New Orleans Pelicans) with the same aspirations.
The trip began in New Orleans in the central time zone and went all the way west to Los Angeles to see old buddy LeBron James, who didn’t play in the matchup because of a groin injury, before it ended with a whimper against the Nuggets. Mixed in were blowout losses against Houston, Portland and Utah.
To make things tougher, the Cavs lost starter Larry Nance Jr. to a sprained MCL one night before leaving for the Big Easy and then center Tristan Thompson followed, missing the final two stops because of foot soreness — the after-effect of a sprained foot that cost him 10 games in December.
The Cavs sure could’ve used that tandem Saturday night against the burly Nuggets, who typically deploy a pair of bigs in most of their lineup combinations.
Without Thompson, Nance and Kevin Love — still not ready following surgery on his foot that has sidelined him since October — the Cavs couldn’t match Denver’s size or strength.
“They posed a big problem for us,” Head coach Larry Drew said. “They’re a big, physical team. We tried to move some things around and tried to change the game up a little bit and play some zone, but in the end, their size wore us down. They’re a good team.”
MVP candidate Nikola Jokic set the tone with a brilliant 13-point, five-assist first quarter. His teammates followed his lead. Point guard Jamal Murray finished with 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range. He had 10 points in the third quarter, helping the Nuggets push the lead to a game-high 30 points.
Jokic recorded his sixth triple-double of the season, pouring in 19 points to go with 12 assists and 11 rebounds. He exited with a couple minutes left in the third quarter to boisterous chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P” and never returned. He didn’t have to. He did plenty in those 28 minutes.
Power forward Paul Millsap overpowered Cedi Osman. Millsap scored 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting to go with five rebounds in 23 minutes. Trey Lyles (16), Monte Morris (15) and Malik Beasley (13) also hit double figures.
The Cavs were led by Ante Zizic, who earned his second straight start in Thompson’s usual spot and made quite a case for more playing time. Zizic had 23 points on 9-of-12 from the field. He reached double figures in five of the six games on the trip.
“Last couple of games I got more playing time,” Zizic said. “That’s meant a lot. My confidence is getting better. More comfortable. Finally I found my rhythm. Before I had some struggles with injuries at beginning of season and I couldn’t catch my rhythm, but now I think finally I’m getting reps and feel like I’m doing good.”
Cedi Osman chipped in with 17.
The loss against Denver sealed Cleveland’s 1-5 mark on the trip, the lone win coming against Los Angeles, which has been scuffling in James’ absence. The average margin of defeat: 16.5 points.
Forget the fun team bonding moments. Forget those passionate debates about burger joints and other everyday topics in the visitor’s locker room. The get-togethers with old teammates and workout buddies. And the hilarious jam sessions coming from the crowded training room nearly an hour before tipoff.
The best part about Cleveland’s road trip: It’s finally over.
The Cavs used their 19th starting lineup, as Drew swapped in Cameron Payne for Alec Burks.
Payne, who is on his second 10-day contract, has received plenty of praise from the coaching staff for his energy, hustle, playmaking and scoring punch off the bench. But in his first start since joining Cleveland on Jan. 8, Payne looked completely overmatched. He didn’t score in 20 minutes.
These lineup swaps have mostly been forced by injury, as Saturday’s game featured two teams that have missed the most games because of that in the NBA.
The Nuggets have 201 such games. The Cavs have 174.
Signed from the G League to a two-way deal, forward Deng Adel made his NBA debut at the 5:08 mark of the fourth quarter. He scored first NBA basket, a 3-pointer from the right wing, with 53.6 seconds left.
Rodney Hood bounces back
Jitters got the best of Hood in his Utah homecoming one night earlier. He scored four points, his second-lowest total of the season.
But he quickly rebounded, able to erase those bad memories with the aggressive approach his coach has been demanding all season. Hood finished with 18 points on 5-of-9 from the field and 2-of-5 on 3-pointers in 26 minutes.
The Cavs return home for a Monday matinee game against the Chicago Bulls, who have yet to win a game in the new year. Tipoff is at 1 p.m.