DETROIT — Instead of gradually amassing five fouls to keep himself mostly sidelined, Nikola Jokic expedited the process this time.
In the second game of a Rust Belt back-to-back in which Denver’s frustration with officiating stewed and simmered until it boiled over, Jokic followed Nuggets coach Michael Malone down the tunnel almost exactly one quarter after Malone was ejected for arguing calls early in a 107-103 Nuggets win against the Pistons.
Denver (10-4) escaped a hectic finish to snap a four-game road losing streak and extend Detroit’s losing streak to 12 games. Reggie Jackson led the charge sans Jokic with 21 points, six assists and no turnovers in a mostly sloppy game. Denver turned it over 14 times, Detroit 18 times. Jackson scored a floater and-one to tie the Pistons at 97, gave the Nuggets a 103-101 lead with a driving layup and lobbed an assist for Aaron Gordon that turned into the go-ahead and-one with 1:33 left. Denver never relinquished that lead thanks to tough interior defense, and Jackson made a foul shot with 11 seconds remaining to ice it. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also scored 20.
Jokic’s ejection, prompted by his second technical foul of the night with 1:21 remaining in the first half, came one day after he played a season-low 27 minutes due to foul trouble in Cleveland.
He was oozing attitude from the opening tip Monday, picking up his first technical foul five minutes into the game for arguing a lane violation call against him during a Detroit free throw that he thought should have been called against the Pistons. When Jokic and Marvin Bagley III got tangled off-ball during a Nuggets possession moments later, Jokic appeared to sarcastically applaud the officials for calling the foul on Bagley instead of him.
By the late stages of the first half, Jokic was aggravated enough to stop dribbling during a live ball situation while he was attempting to back down Bagley. He let the ball bounce, dormant, while giving the nearest official his signature baffled-arms gesture.
No call. Live ball.
Jokic re-gathered possession then flailed as Isaiah Stewart rotated to double-team him and helped Bagley knock the ball away. That, too, resulted in no foul call. The ball slowly rolled out of bounds for a Nuggets side-out. But rather than move on, Jokic kept getting in the face of referee Tre Maddox while stand-in head coach David Adelman tried to get between them. Maddox handed Jokic another technical, and Jokic made his exit from a game that was soon 56-55 Nuggets at halftime.
Jackson, the ex-Piston, scored the buzzer-beating layup to give Denver that slim lead. Jackson had been greeted with mild boos pregame when he was introduced, but Jokic received mostly applause from Detroit’s fans during starting lineup intros. As the two-time MVP exited the game, the Pistons local broadcast expressed displeasure with the officiating crew: “Let me tell you this, these fans did not come here to see Curtis Blair, Tre Maddox or Andy Nagy, whoever they are.”
The reason Adelman was the man trying to intervene? The crew chief Blair tossed Malone with 1:22 left in the first quarter. Malone’s tipping point was a foul call on Nuggets rookie Julian Strawther, who was the first player to dive on top of a loose ball at Denver’s defensive end of the floor. An opposing player tripped over Strawther trying to go after the ball, and Strawther was whistled. Malone turned to the second row of the bench to watch the replay as play continued, then continued yelling at the officials.
Unlike Jokic, Malone received both technicals within two seconds of each other.
The game unfurled into chaos without Jokic. During one particularly dumbfounding sequence in the third, neither team could finish at the rim or complete an outlet pass as possession swiveled back and forth several times, including once when the floor-wipers had to sprint off during a Nuggets fast break. (It ended with an alley-oop lob attempt getting swatted out of bounds.)
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