CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 33 points and recorded his 41st career triple-double as the Cleveland Cavaliers clinched their second straight Central Division title with a 124-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
James added 11 rebounds and 11 assists before checking out with 6:02 left to a thunderous ovation. He scored 17 in the first quarter, helping the Cavs build a 19-point lead and erase the memory of an embarrassing loss on Saturday in Miami.
The Nuggets fought back and briefly led before the Cavs regrouped, scored 68 after halftime and easily notched their 50th win.
J.R. Smith added 15 points and Channing Frye 14 for Cleveland, which played without starter Kevin Love (illness).
Will Barton scored 27 for the Nuggets, who concluded a 1-4 road trip. Denver’s Kenneth Faried missed his third straight game with a sore lower back.
The Cavs were playing for the first time since being battered by the Heat, who led by 33 in the fourth and won by 21. It was a humiliating night for James, who sat out the final 12 minutes against his former team, and the loss raised more questions about Cleveland’s chemistry and chances of returning to the NBA Finals.
James got the Cavs back on track and to 50 wins, a milestone coach Tyronn Lue said shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“It’s something we embrace,” he said. “It’s not every year that you can do that, unless you’re the San Antonio Spurs and teams like that. It just shows the hard work the guys have put in to get to this point. All is not bad.”
Cleveland has more work to do but this is a start.
James was aggressive from the outset and finished the first quarter with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists. The Cavs had their highest-scoring opening quarter of the season and it appeared they would be able to rest some starters in the second half.
But with Barton leading the way, the Nuggets went on a 17-0 run and took a 43-41 lead in the second quarter while James was on the bench.
James returned and with Lue using a lineup that featured the four-time league MVP, Frye, Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavs reeled off nine consecutive points and led 56-48 at halftime.
Cleveland’s starters blitzed Denver to start the third and the Cavs pushed their lead to 30 before James left.
After James picked up his 11th assist for his second triple-double this season, Lue sent in a substitute and Cleveland’s bench and crowd applauded as he left the floor.
Nuggets: F JaKarr Sampson strained his left shoulder in the first half and didn’t return. He attended James’ high school, Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary, for three years. … Coach Mike Malone spent five seasons as an assistant with the Cavaliers. He said Cleveland’s run to the 2007 finals, which included James’ epic performance in Game 5 of the conference semifinals at Detroit – he scored 28 of the Cavs’ final 30 points – is his fondest memory. “One of the best performances by a player in postseason history,” Malone said.
Cavaliers: Cleveland has won at least 50 games nine times. … James has scored 20 points or more in 16 straight games against Denver. … G Mo Williams has been cleared to practice after missing nearly a month with an injured left knee. Williams, who has not played since Feb. 24, has been bothered by soreness in his knee for most of the season. He took part in Monday’s shootaround and could play in games later this week. … The Cavs also won division titles in 1975-76, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2014-15.