Last night, June 13, the Phoenix Suns swept your Denver Nuggets out of the NBA playoffs by a score of 125-118. But getting far less attention than this utterly predictable outcome was the late third-quarter ejection of Nugs star and league MVP Nikola Jokic for a hard foul that left Suns guard Cameron Payne flat on the floor as he tried to ascertain if his nose was still attached to his face.
The second Jokic walked off the court, Twitter exploded with the anger of Denver fans stunned by the decision, and since then, the disrespect narrative has only gathered steam. The grievances are summed up in this question tweeted by Colorado Rockies sportscaster Drew Goodman: "Does LeBron get tossed for that?"
The answer is "No" — because LeBron James would never have put himself in that position. As for those Nuggets loyalists who insist upon seeing the move as an example of officials determining the outcome of the game, here are two words for you: Shut up. Because the Nuggets would not only have lost the series against the Suns anyway, but they would have wound up on the short side of this particular game whether Jokic had been allowed to remain on the floor or not.
Much was expected of the Nuggets this year, after the squad made it all the way to the Western Conference finals during the previous campaign, completed in the COVID-19-mandated NBA bubble. But Jamal Murray, who helped his fellows overcome two separate 3-1 deficits (against the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers) prior to falling to James and eventual champion L.A. Lakers, was erratic during much of the 2021 season before he was knocked out by an injury — a scenario that also impacted Will Barton, who was able to return for the past couple of games, and PJ Dozier, who wasn't. As a result, the Nuggets had to give considerable backcourt time to the likes of Austin Rivers, who was plucked straight off the pro-basketball scrap heap, and Facundo Campazzo, a scrappy playmaker but a matchup mess. Moreover, the players acquired in the off-season in an attempt to overcome the departure of the impressive and gifted Jerami Grant (we're looking at you, JaMychal Green) failed to fill the gap, and while late pickup Aaron Gordon proved to be a defensive stalwart, he added little offensive firepower.
That left Jokic to keep the Nuggets train rolling, and he did. In some quarters, he was a controversial choice for MVP, simply because his gifts are subtle rather than spectacular. But he absolutely deserved the award, as he proved by lifting the team over the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs' first round.
But Jokic, who's 26, still has his moments of immaturity, and despite his subsequent claim that the foul against Payne was purposeful (he insisted that he was trying to "change the rhythm of the game"), it was clearly an act of frustration. After all, the Suns had made the wise strategic choice to blanket him throughout the series under the assumption that the other Nuggets wouldn't be able to pick up the slack, and they didn't. Denver lost the previous three skirmishes by double digits and were on the way to a similar outcome in game four; the Suns were ahead by eight when Jokic was bounced.
There were loads of Suns boosters at Ball Arena to watch Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the rest of the Phoenix crew put down a valiant but failed effort by Barton and company to survive in Jokic's absence, and afterward, some ugliness ensued, as evidenced by this video clip of an in-the-stands fight that went viral.
I was sitting right next to them when it went down— ???? (@cbj3000) June 12, 2021
Here’s what happened: pic.twitter.com/YUj5jpwt5e
Local sports franchises took it on the chin, too, with the Colorado Avalanche and the Nuggets losing a cumulative eight consecutive games prior to their playoffs ousters. And with the ongoing conflict between Comcast and their broadcasting partner, Altitude Sports, there's no guarantee most Coloradans will get a chance to see either team on TV very often during the regular season next year.
In the meantime, the Nuggets have some retooling to do even after Murray's return. Our guess is that as much as half the roster could turn over in an effort to give Jokic a supporting cast capable of finally getting him over the hump. His ejection last night could fuel him going forward, even if what happened was nobody's fault but his own.
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