Nikola Jokic's ejection seals Denver Nuggets' fate
Already facing long odds down 3-0, the Nuggets saw their hopes of pulling a miracle evaporate when their MVP was tossed from Game 4.
Raucous MVP chants reverberated through Ball Arena for all the wrong reasons Sunday in the midst of Nikola Jokic losing his cool when the Denver Nuggets needed him most.
Coach Michael Malone had already pulled all the stops. He called the Nuggets “soft,” said they “quit.” Eventually, he even switched the starting lineup going into Game 4 by opting to play Will Barton and Monte Morris with the first group.
We’ll never really know how truly effective Malone’s adjustments could have been in the aftermath of Denver suffering a 4-0 sweep by way of a 125-118 thumping by Phoenix in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals.
What’s certain, though, is that none of the tweaks implemented by Malone could work after officials ejected Jokic for a Flagrant 2 foul with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter.
“We knew once Joker went out, that was just gonna open the door for a lot of other guys,” said Suns guard Chris Paul after lighting up the Nuggets for a season-high 37 points to go with seven assists.
The hard truth is Jokic robbed Malone and the Nuggets of their best chance to extend this series.
Phoenix, meanwhile, heads to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2010, and now awaits the winner between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers. The Suns’ latest sweep marks just their third in franchise history. Denver suffered just its second playoff sweep in franchise history.
“Of course, that didn’t go how we wanted,” Jokic said. “Sometimes, you need to accept a loss. You can’t change it.”
The first Serbian player to win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as the 2020-21 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player, Jokic is a 25-year-old, sixth-year veteran. Yet Jokic’s actions with 3:52 left in the third quarter with his team on the brink of elimination belied those credentials.
Frustrated after not receiving a call on a runner, Jokic channeled his emotions by taking a wind-up swing at the ball and ended up swiping Suns guard Cameron Payne across the face. The heft of the blow made the sweat fly off Payne’s face, and the guard crumpled to the ground in apparent pain.
Devin Booker immediately confronted Jokic with several other players joining the fracas. Both Jokic and Booker were whistled for technical fouls.
On his way off the court after the ejection, Jokic walked over to Payne and appeared to apologize.
Payne deserved as much, but so did Jokic’s teammates. Jokic’s ejection served as the unofficial end to a tremendous season for the Nuggets.
It didn’t have to be this way, though.
Malone’s decision to insert Barton and Morris into the starting lineup appeared to pay at least small dividends early on as Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon struggled (combined for 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting in the first half). Morris started off the game hot, shooting 5 of 8 in the first half for 11 points. Barton caught his groove in the third quarter, racking up 10 of his playoff career-high 25 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and 2 of 4 from deep. Morris would contribute 19 points, while Porter chipped in 20.
So, Jokic finally had the help he needed from his supporting cast.
Besides that, he also needed to recognize the importance of the moment and the situation. After all, over the first three games of this series, the Suns had been plus-29 over the Nuggets in the third quarter, outscoring them by 10 in Game 1, nine in Game 2 and 10 in Game 3.
So, in essence, the third quarter has been when Phoenix wins games. It’s not the time to jeopardize availability by acting out in response to frustration.
It’s a lesson that Booker has apparently already learned in just 10 career playoff games. Booker expressed as much to TNT’s Ernie Johnson when asked what he’s learned about what’s required to shine on the biggest stage.
“I’d say just keeping your composure,” said Booker, who finished with 34 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. “The game’s gonna be physical. The game’s gonna be high intensity, but just stay with it the whole 48 minutes. That’s what our team is made of. That’s what we’ve been sticking with all season. I think it wears a lot of teams down when we play like that.”
So, Jokic and the Nuggets simply became “a lot of teams,” as Phoenix rolled to its seventh consecutive win after losing Games 2 and 3 in the opening round to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jokic ended the night with 22 points and 11 rebounds, becoming the first reigning MVP to suffer a postseason sweep since Magic Johnson in 1989.
Booker, meanwhile, has put together five 30-point games in his first taste of the postseason, while Paul comes off his most productive showing in the playoffs since 2018.
Paul is just the third player in NBA history age 36 or older to produce a 37-point game in the playoffs, joining the elite company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. In the process, Paul passed Isiah Thomas for 13th on the NBA’s career postseason assist list (989 assists).
Paul and Booker became the first pair of Phoenix teammates to each score 30-plus points in a playoff game since 2005, when Steve Nash and Shawn Marion accomplished the feat.
In the fourth quarter of this series, Paul produced 43 points on 16 of 19 from the field and 4 of 5 from 3-point range with 10 assists and no turnovers.
All of which is pretty difficult to combat without your best player on the floor.
“You lose the MVP,” Malone said, “it’s gonna make it even harder to try to stave off elimination.”
Denver learned that the hard way.
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