Nikola Jokic swung with the pent-up frustration of a grueling season weighing on him.
And when he was ejected with 3:52 left in the third quarter of Sunday’s Game 4, the Nuggets’ season dangled on life support. The Nuggets fought valiantly without their MVP, but lost, 125-118, to Phoenix at Ball Arena.
The Nuggets enter an offfseason that came later than most imagined following Jamal Murray’s devastating ACL injury. Phoenix’s four-game sweep in the Western Conference semifinals was unrelenting.
Asked what explanation he got from officials on the ejection, Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasn’t satisfied.
“It was something along the lines of ‘wind-up, malicious intent,’ some other mumbo jumbo,” Malone said of the flagrant 2 foul that got Jokic tossed.
Suns’ guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker landed innumerable daggers as the Nuggets fought to mount their fourth-quarter comeback. At one point trailing 97-86, Denver charged back under a siege of baskets from Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton. The Nuggets shaved the margin to 101-97 with 8:01 left before Suns wing Mikal Bridges and Booker connected on back to back baskets.
But the game was all but decided after officials reviewed Jokic’s swing, which caught Suns guard Cam Payne partially in the face. With Payne laying on the floor, Booker took exception to the foul and stepped in front of Jokic, who didn’t back down. Both teams swarmed the floor to defend their franchise cornerstones.
Jokic sat on the scorer’s table awaiting the official ruling. Once both teams were informed, Jokic walked to center court to seemingly apologize to Payne. With that, Jokic’s MVP season came to an unceremonious close. A quarter and a half later, so would the Nuggets’ season.
Jokic exited with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
“Did I hit him? I don’t know,” Jokic said post-game. “So I’ll say sorry if I did because I didn’t want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose.”
After three games of anemic offense, Malone switched up the starters ahead of Game 4. He inserted Monte Morris and Barton, two starting-caliber veterans whom Malone leaned on heavily throughout the season.
Both played admirably, rising to the moment as their superstar watched from the locker room. Barton had a team-high 25 points, including 21 in the second half. His 39 minutes shattered his minutes restriction (16) from Game 2. Morris added 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting.
Barton scored seven points in the first four minutes of the third quarter, punctuated by a soaring tomahawk jam. The Nuggets found an offensive spark, and trimmed the lead to 71-70 on a Porter 3-pointer, but Paul’s mid-range train never stopped rolling. He carved apart Denver’s pick-and-roll schemes, each basket undermining Denver’s fight. But with 3:52 left in the third quarter, chaos broke out when Jokic swung down on Payne, which led to his ejection.
As fans roared for their MVP, the Nuggets’ season teetered on the brink. The Nuggets headed to the fourth down 96-83 after Paul hit basket after basket with his mid-range jumper, most from the right elbow.
He finished the game with 37 points on 14-of-19 from the field. Booker added 34.
Before the game, Malone sounded confident that his team still had fight left.
“The feel I get from our players yesterday when we went through the film, this afternoon, this morning, is that they still believe,” Malone said. “I think it will be pretty easily discernible when we start the game, and how we’re playing, if that belief is real or if it’s more talk.”
The Nuggets used Sunday’s first half to dispel any notion that they’d conceded the series. Despite shooting an abysmal 5-of-18 from 3-point range and Phoenix’s backcourt combining for 31 points, the Nuggets stayed within range. On the shoulders of Jokic’s 18 points and 10 rebounds, the Nuggets entered halftime down just 63-55.h2 data-curated-ids="" data-relation-type="automatic-primary-tag"">
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Though the first-half shooting wasn’t there, the fight was.
As it was in the second half after Jokic was ejected.
Source : https://www.denverpost.com/2021/06/13/nuggets-swept-suns-nikola-jokic-ejected-game-4/846