DENVER — Russell Westbrook's flagrant one shoulder check on Nikola Jokic came just one minute and 32 seconds into Tuesday night's loss to the Thunder but Denver Nuggets' coach Michael Malone hypothesized that the act had been brewing for quite some time.
Flashback to April 9, 2017 — that was the last time Denver and Oklahoma City faced off. A lot was at stake that night. The Nuggets were on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention and Westbrook was one triple-double away from breaking Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles in a season. The Thunder won, Denver was eliminated and Westbrook got his triple-double. The reigning Most Valuable Player also hit a game-winning 36-footer at the buzzer, tallied 50 points and the two teams engaged in an emotional game that went down to the bitter end.
The Thunder won, Denver was eliminated and Westbrook got his triple-double. The reigning Most Valuable Player also hit a game-winning 36-footer at the buzzer, tallied 50 points and the two teams engaged in an emotional game that went down to the bitter end.
"You go back to the last game we played them when we were eliminated from the playoffs," Malone said after Denver's 96-86 loss. "There was some chippiness in that game and to be quite honest, I thought some of that carried over to tonight. And they're a physical team. Steven Adams is a physical guy and they're going to try and come at you, see if they can punk you and we have to stand our ground and let them know, not us, different team. And we're going to go right back at you and do it in the appropriate manner within the rules obviously. That's something that we're going to have to handle. We have a very talented and deep team but we also have to learn to bring a toughness every single night we step on the floor."
Westbrook's opening quarter flagrant on Tuesday set the tone for a physical, low scoring game.
But Malone was quick to note after the game that the foul didn't affect Jokic. The 22-year-old said the check didn't hurt when he spoke with reporters after the game and even admitted that he "flopped" on the play. He went on to post a modest 12-point, 11-rebound stat line and more importantly didn't show any ill-effects from the foul.
"Nikola is a hell of a player but his biggest challenge and biggest place for growth will be from the neck up," Malone said of the altercation. "I though him handling that first interaction with Westbrook and not letting it affect him and not going sideways at any time shows signs of maturation on his part which I love to see. Good for him but I was just happy his older brother Strahinja wasn't in the building tonight."
Denver's rising center may be goofy off the court but he's tough in-between the sidelines. The stories about him wrestling his older brothers in their living room leak out a few times per year but Jokic is never one to let others get in his head on the floor.
Whether Westbrook's foul was premeditated or not, Jokic stayed composed after. He was only called for two personal fouls Tuesday after struggling with foul trouble at times this preseason and throughout most of last year.
"We don't have the Bad Boys from back in the day and the league has changed in that regard considerably," Malone said referencing the physical Pistons teams of the late '80's and early '90's. "We have some guys on our team — Wilson Chandler's not going to get punked. He might be a nice guy, he might be quiet, but he's not going to let someone cross that line. I think Gary Harris has that same thing in him. Jameer Nelson has that same thing in him and I think a lot of our guys do. By no means do we have a guy that's going to start throwing elbows and get reckless but I think we have guys that have mental and physical toughness and understand the importance of not having it because if they do it once, they're going to have you and they're going to put you in their pocket."
But Malone remained ticked off by the foul after the game. When asked if the flagrant set the tone for a physical contest, he didn't mince words.
"You mean the flagrant two? Oh, that's right they called it a flagrant one. I apologize," Malone said with a straight face. "That goes back to last game here. That was sending a message and what I'm proud of with Nikola is he took it and it didn't affect him."
Denver plays Oklahoma City four more times this regular season. Malone and the Nuggets will have this opening minute flagrant in the back of their heads heading into every single one of those matchups.