DENVER — With a 36-foot three-pointer at the buzzer Sunday night in Denver, Russell Westbrook ended the Nuggets’ season.
It was an MVP moment from Westbrook, the likely MVP winner, who cemented himself in league history earlier in the quarter when he notched his 10th assist of the night on a Semaj Christon corner three, giving the 28-year-old his 42nd triple-double, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62 and now the most an NBA player has ever registered in a single season.
It was Westbrook’s night. His season. His moment.
But lost in the shuffle was a sequence involving Denver’s star center Nikola Jokic that bears an equal amount of responsibility for yet another Nuggets’ collapse.
Denver led 103-95 when Jokic picked up this flagrant foul on Westbrook. After originally calling it a common foul, the referees went to the monitor and upgraded it to a flagrant one.
It was an egregious call, to say the least. One that should have stayed a common foul. Especially after Westbrook’s threat to Jokic that was in direct earshot of the referee and courtside microphones.
“I’m going to f*** you up,” Westbrook said.
Then, Jokic picks up a technical, another debatable call, and one that prompted Jokic’s older brother Strahinja to come down from his seat to argue with the referee just a few rows from the court (seen at the bottom of the last few frames of the full two-minute sequence below).
“I ask him why, and he told me ‘I don’t want to talk to you,'” Jokic said describing the technical and his interaction with referee Kenny Mauer. “And I say ‘okay’ and I just get a technical. If I get a technical foul for saying ‘okay,’ I’m good with that. I didn’t say any bad words, any curse words. I just said ‘okay.'”
Here’s Michael Malone’s take on the sequence:
“Whether Kenny Mauer calls that tech or not, he has to be smart enough to walk away if the referee has told him to walk away,” Malone said. “But I’m always going to believe my guys and Nikola said he didn’t say much.”
“Kenny Mauer said that we told him to walk away and he didn’t. That was the explanation I got,” Malone continued. “My thing to Kenny was with two minutes to go in the game, that’s a tough call to make in my opinion when the game’s hanging in the balance. It wasn’t anything demonstrative. It wasn’t anything cursing. It wasn’t anything over the top. And he called it. Hey, Kenny’s a great official he must have felt it’s the right call. But obviously, time and score and situation. I think players coaches and referees have to take all those things into account sometimes.”
Tonight, Jokic’s emotions got the better of him. Yes, the foul shouldn’t have been upgraded to a flagrant. Yes, Jokic likely shouldn’t have been called for a technical. But the 22-year-old has not know when to walk away from an escalating situation.
That responsibility falls on Malone and his staff to get their star player away from the referee. It also falls on Jokic’s teammates to walk him away from any confrontation. And lastly, it falls on Jokic. He has to do a better job of keeping his emotions under control in these situations.
The flagrant and technical foul sequence shrunk Denver’s lead from eight points to five without any time running off the clock. The Thunder would then go on an 8-2 run over the final 1:55 after Jokic’s flagrant and technical to steal a 106-105 win.
It was a brutal final few minutes and in a sense a microcosm of a Nuggets’ season that has seen Denver post the 25th-ranked offense and league-worst field goal percentage in what NBA.com defines as the “clutch”; when the game is within five points with five minutes or less remaining.
Denver’s season is now over. They’re officially eliminated from playoff contention.
It’s setting up to be a big summer for Jokic and while he needs to come back to Denver next fall stronger and in the best shape of his career, Jokic also must come back a renewed mindset.
One that doesn’t question every foul call and knows when to walk away.