The Denver Nuggets defeated the Chicago Bulls 115-105 despite Nikola Jokic being thrown out in an exasperating example of referee judgment. The Nuggets played the whole game without Jamal Murray, resting the ankle he twisted in last night’s win against the Atlanta Hawks, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed the entire second half after taking an accidental hit to the head from Nikola Vucevic on a screen, but it was the ridiculous ejection of Nikola Jokic that left Denver desperately short-handed. Despite that they outmatched the also-shorthanded Bulls thanks to the best bench scoring effort of the season from the Nuggets. Reggie Jackson put up 25 points and 6 assists, Michael Porter Jr added 17 points and Aaron Gordon had 14, but the 16 points from Julian Strawther and 13 from Christian Braun helped Denver come out on top.

Game Recap

Denver started the scoring with a last-second three from Reggie Jackson off a cross-court pass from Nikola Jokic, but then both teams struggled to make their buckets off some nice looks. MPJ missed a drive and a three, Reggie missed a three, and Coby White’s scoring drive was offset by paint baskets from Porter and Gordon for an early 9-2 Denver lead. MPJ then finished a fastbreak off a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rebound, but on the next play KCP took a hit to the face trying to cross a screen on defense and had to be taken back to the locker room. Christian Braun came in and hit a three, answered by Patrick Williams for Chicago. MPJ missed a couple of threes, and a pair of Chicago three-pointers from Coby White and DeMar DeRozan took the lead for Chicago at 15-14. Jokic threw a nice outlet to Braun and then made his first bucket of the game shortly after, and finally put in a hard-fought rebound for a 22-17 lead. Jokic went out and Peyton Watson blew a couple of finishes before getting a bucket on a cut to the rim. Braun hit a three, Watson got a steal and a couple of blocks including one at the buzzer and the Nuggets led after one quarter 32-25.

Reggie Jackson hit a Braun-assisted three, but the Bulls started attacking the paint to go with a banked-in three by White to close it to 4 before a Jackson oop to DeAndre Jordan. Chicago clawed their way back to 38-36 with free throws and tough play, which brought most of the Denver starters back in around the 8 minute mark. Braun made a pair of free throws, and Aaron Gordon forced in a nice tough paint bucket off a turnover. Denver squandered several trips down the court however, and a Nikola Vucevic turnround made it 44-42 Denver. Braun finished in the paint, Vucevic answered with a drive of his own, but MPJ hit some free throws and Reggie Jackson hit a three to drag the lead back to 10. And then on the softest ejection I’ve seen in years, Nikola Jokic was thrown out of the game for yelling about a missed foul call to a referee while running back down the court. No first technical foul, no followup, he doesn’t chase down the ref and get in his face. He barks out a couple things running down the court and is tossed. Apparently a magic word hurt a referee’s feelings and now the Nuggets will get to play the rest of the game without the two-time MVP.

Other minor things happened at the end of the half but I’m too mad to recap them. Nuggets were up at halftime 57-50.

 

Coming out of the half KCP also would not return after being hit in the head in the first half, so Denver was down three of its normal starters. DeRozan missed a three, Strawther made a three and got fouled on a drive and made both free throws. Porter hit a 20-footer, Reggie Jackson made a three off a Strawther assist, and Coby White’s 28-foot bucket was answered by Porter from deep for a 75-64 Nuggets lead. MPJ made his 500th three-pointer as a Nugget in the fewest games in team history, and led 83-71 when the Bulls wedged a three-pointer in against the rim. From there the Bulls kept fighting for rebounds and the smaller Nuggets gave up too many second chances. Chicago cut the lead to four but Justin Holiday and the other bench players fought back, with Strawther’s last-minute three and free throws making the lead 12 after three, 92-80.

Julian Strawther ripped a rebound away from Andre Drummond on one end and Jackson threw a finish to DeAndre Jordan on the other end as Denver kept scrapping up double-digits. Andre Drummond free throws finally cut the lead to 9 with eight minutes to go, but Denver attacked the glass and kept fighting while Reggie Jackson rested. Aaron Gordon threw a great assist to Justin Holiday as Denver set its season high in bench points, then followed up with a dunk off a Jordan assist to make it 104-92. Aaron Gordon hit a dagger three with three minutes to go as the Nuggets finally matched Chicago’s effort on the boards, and the Nuggets took the win 114-106.

 

Final Thoughts

I don’t know how to talk about anything but the Nikola Jokic ejection. Securing the win down three starters in the second half with Murray, Jokic and KCP all out for various reasons, was outstanding. Julian Strawther coming through on a back-to-back with the same effort and energy and scoring acumen was great to see – that’s tough for rookies who don’t play back-to-backs in college. It was a great team win and a wonderful two-game finish for the team on the road.

But the Jokic ejection is endemic to the way the Nuggets are refereed. We don’t yet know what was said, though the rumors make it seem like it warranted a simple technical foul call rather than an instant ejection. That said, it’s incredibly hard to win night in and night out when they are constantly facing free throw deficits, and watching Jokic get hacked dozens of times a game and then get called on the other end for the same fouls he cannot get a whistle in his favor for is brutal. The Nuggets are one of the few good teams in the bottom half of the league in free throw discrepancy and they are the defending champions with a two-time MVP. No amount of success is enough to overcome Denver’s status as a Have-Not in the league, and that has to change. Denver’s offense is run by a center, and while centers are fouled more and called less because the league is guard-oriented and drives are whistled far differently than paint struggles between big men, they cannot continue to run the kind of discrepancy they are so far this year

Jokic deserves the respect of a reasonable whistle. He deserves to stay in the game for arguing less strenuously than other big men and league faces like LeBron James and Draymond Green do. Fans deserve to get to see him play for the hundreds of dollars they are spending to attend these games. He cannot continue to get the whistle get got as a basketball anomaly freshly arrived from Serbia. The greatest player in the game cannot be thrown out on the road for directing a curse word in the general direction of a referee who frankly refused to call obvious fouls he was looking directly at. The Nuggets can win despite it – they did tonight. They are good enough with a full completement of players led by the greatest talent in the NBA to win it all despite it.

But they shouldn’t have to. The NBA has an image issue when it comes to fans believing some games are rigged, and having already had a referee admit in court and get sentenced for betting on games he rigged before NBA betting was as imbedded as it is now. The one thing the NBA can’t afford is for referees to be seen as completely biased, and between the Scott Foster and Chris Paul drama and things like this game it’s become less like a joke and more like a statement of fact. The NBA has to address some of these things and the Nuggets will hopefully have some things to say in that direction after the game – even if it costs them some money.

Something has to change.