Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) walks to the locker room afte his second technical foul during the first half of an EuroJournal basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
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 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 Denver win over the Pistons.
The Nuggets (10-4) escaped a hectic finish with airtight interior defense, snapping a four-game road losing streak and extending Detroit’s skid to 12 games. Reggie Jackson led the charge sans Jokic with 21 points, six assists and no turnovers in an otherwise chaotic, calamitous game.
“Character win,” Malone said. “That’s what I’d say. Character win.”
Jackson converted a baseline floater with a foul to tie the Pistons at 97, gave the Nuggets a 103-101 lead with a driving layup, then lobbed an assist for Aaron Gordon that turned into the go-ahead and-one with 1:33 left. Denver never relinquished that lead. The one time Jackson faltered, getting crossed up by Cade Cunningham in the last 20 seconds with a three-point lead, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rotated in help defense to force a missed layup. Caldwell-Pope also scored 20.
“Goes up and uses the rule of verticality, defending without fouling,” Malone said. “… That was a huge play. And that’s what makes KCP such a great defender.”
Jokic’s ejection was prompted by his second technical foul of the night with 1:21 before halftime. It 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 within five minutes for arguing a lane violation call. 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 end of the 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 help 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.
“He doesn’t need to apologize. They’re fouling him, and they’re not reffing him by the book,” Gordon said. “They’re putting two hands on him. They’re pushing him. It’s a foul. When somebody has their back to the basket, you can’t put two hands on him, and they keep putting two hands on him. So it’s a foul. I can understand his frustration.”
Jackson, the ex-Piston, scored the buzzer-beating layup to give Denver that slim lead. He 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.”
Jackson also scored 18 points against his most recent team, the Clippers, six days earlier. Is there something about playing his former teams?
“Yeahhh,” he said. “I love my former teams, always. I’m always appreciative of my time there. But gotta try to show up when you play your old teams.”
Nikola Jokic picked up his second technical foul and was ejected right before halftime of Nuggets-Pistons
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was ejected after picking up two techs earlier in the half.pic.twitter.com/gZ4gH2K3JL
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) November 21, 2023
The reason Adelman was the man trying to intervene with Jokic? Blair, the crew chief, 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, but Strawther was whistled. Malone turned to the second row of the bench to watch the replay as play continued, then he continued yelling at the officials.
Unlike Jokic, Malone received both technicals within two seconds of each other.
“We teach our guys, be first to the floor,” Malone said. “First to the floor. Win the 50-50 battle. And in that play right there, I felt Julian was first to the floor. Doing exactly what we are asking him to do. So I give Julian credit for trying to fight for that loose ball. But the officiating is the officiating, and we move on and get ready to go to Orlando.”