SAN FRANCISCO — In a league notorious for curtsying in the presence of its stars, giving LeBron, KD and Steph all the favorable calls, why do NBA referees insist on giving Nuggets center and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic the no-soup-for-you treatment?
The Nuggets got blown out 123-107 in Game 1 of their playoff series against Golden State. It wasn’t a fair fight, with Jokic playing one-on-eight against five Warriors players and three referees.
Before he boarded a flight to the California, I asked Denver coach Michael Malone what kind of respect he expected the refs would show Jokic.
“They’re going to realize he’s a back-to-back MVP,” replied Malone, punctuating his zinger with a self-satisfied grin. “How about that one, Kiz?”
The zinger? Absolutely beautiful. Loved it.
But as for Malone’s theory refs would show Jokic respect?
Jokic, who spent much of the evening cradling a frustrated head in his hands, took 22 field-goal attempts before drawing his first foul from a Golden State defender with 2 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“His jersey was getting pulled out a lot,” said Malone, resisting the urge to criticize the officials more harshly.
The treatment of Jokic might not have been criminal, but it’s certainly farcical. What does the once and future MVP have to do to earn a more favorable whistle from the refs?
“My friend,” Jokic said, “I think I’m going to get fined if I answer.”
The beef is legitimate. But let’s end the whining right here.
The real problem for the Nuggets now, unless they’re intent on heading to the beach sooner rather than later, is not the referees. If Jokic is playing one-on-eight, it’s because he has too many teammates, most notably the ridiculously overpaid Aaron Gordon, that are big fat zeroes on the big playoff stage.
I got a very bad feeling of deja vu in the Chase Center. The lack of fight in the Nuggets reminded me way too much of getting broomed by Phoenix in the playoffs a year ago.
They are Joker and the Invisibles.
As the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, Malone beseeched the underdog Nuggets to come out swinging against Golden State with a nothing-to-lose attitude.
“I learned a long time ago from my father,” Malone told me prior to tipoff of Game 1, “when you have two really good teams, talented teams, in most instances, the most aggressive team will win.”
So what happened? Jokic gallantly waged a war on the basketball floor. But the Invisibles shrunk in the spotlight.
With Golden State forcing him into uncommon inefficiency, Jokic required 25 shots for 25 hard-earned points. Will Barton, who scored 24, did show up. Kudos to him.
But the rest of the Nuggets? Non-existent.
And Gordon was the worst. He was the cellophane man, missing seven of his 10 field-goal attempts. Unable to make the Golden State defense pay when the Warriors double-teamed Jokic, a mid-range jumper from Gordon was the equivalent of a Denver turnover.
When Jokic nailed a 14-foot jumper with 4 minutes, 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Denver led 43-40. One of the league’s more raucous arenas was filled with murmurs of anxiety. As Warriors guard Steph Curry labored to shake off the rust in his return from injury as a sub, it seemed the time was right for the Nuggets to steal Game 1.
With Draymond Green harassing Jokic, however, the Invisibles stumbled into halftime, allowing the Warriors to finish the second quarter on an 18-4 run and take an 11-point lead into the locker room. That was the turning point, but not the main reason why Golden State won. With Curry far from Vintage Steph, the Warriors needed somebody to step up. Guard Jordan Peele did, burning Denver with 30 points.
“We are underdogs here,” Jokic said. “But we need to act like the dogs … We need to fight and we cannot quit.”
A year ago, Gordon came up small in the playoffs, averaging a meager 11.1 points on 43.4% shooting. He was little more than a big pile of dust under the broom of the Suns, as Phoenix swept away Denver in the second round.
That underwhelming playoff performance somehow earned Gordon a four-year, $86.4 million contract extension in September. Yeah, I know. If not for the injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., AG would be the Nuggets’ fourth offensive option.
Whatever happened to the idea of next man up? Gordon is a $20 million role player.
Only in America.
“Aaron Gordon is at his best when he’s attacking,” Malone said. “When he plays with that attack mindset, he’s a different player and he takes this team to a different level.”
Gordon has two choices now:
Roll up his sleeves and be a dog in the fight with Jokic.
Or Gordon can turn tail and schedule that beach vacation to spend a chunk of money the Nuggets have wasted on him.