The 50-foot hallway that connects the Nuggets’ locker room to Pepsi Center’s main floor was quieter than normal prior to Denver’s matchup with the visiting Phoenix Suns. A few minutes before the Nuggets typically take the floor for warmups, the empty corridor becomes Nikola Jokic’s personal runway where Denver’s seven-foot Serbian runs his pregame wind sprints, breezing past arena security before joining with his teammates for a final pregame huddle. But ahead of Friday night’s tilt, the ground-level passageway didn’t shake like it typically does during Jokic’s hallway rumble.
Jokic had been banished from Pepsi Center for leaving the bench during a first quarter altercation between Mason Plumlee and Derrick Favors in the Nuggets’ 114-108 loss in Utah on Wednesday. He watched his team’s wire-to-wire win from the comforts of his Denver apartment.
Fortunately for Michael Malone’s bunch, the Nuggets didn’t need Jokic’s services in their 37-point victory. The win was a ho-hum effort over the Zion Williamson-seeking Suns where eight Nuggets players scored in double figures and Denver shot 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. Malone wasn’t thrilled with how his group defended the Suns in the first quarter, where Phoenix tallied 32 points but was encouraged by Denver’s defensive effort in the second half as the Nuggets limited Devin Booker and Co. to 36 percent shooting. Rookie Jarred Vanderbilt even made his NBA debut late in the fourth quarter, tying the bow on a routine home win.
The Nuggets’ morning in the lead-up to tip-off was far from ordinary.
The call from the league came shortly after 11:30 a.m Friday morning. By then, Denver had already gone through shootaround and installed its gameplan for the Suns that evening with Jokic penciled into the starting lineup. Most players had already showered, gotten treatment and left the facility. Jokic was one of the last ones to depart into the chilly 30-degree afternoon.
By the time the Nuggets were notified of the suspension, Jokic had already spoken with the league office on Thursday, the day after the altercation in Utah. He pleaded his case, outlining what was fairly obvious from looking at video of the dustup: that him taking a couple steps, like a few of his other teammates, towards the melee was merely a natural reaction to the incident. The suspension caught Jokic off guard.
“I was not on the court,” said Jokic after finishing with 28 points, 21 rebounds and 6 assists in Denver’s loss in Utah. “I mean, I cannot step? I was not even close. If they’re going to fine me, they’re going to fine me, but I did not do nothing.”
On a series of calls with the league Friday morning, Nuggets officials pointed to a nearly identical altercation involving Stephen Curry from earlier this season. In the Warriors’ preseason finale, Curry and teammate DeMarcus Cousins walked onto the floor and in the direction of an incident between their teammate Quinn Cook and Lakers guard/forward Lance Stephenson, who threw a punch Cook’s direction. Curry avoided a suspension for what would have been Golden State’s regular-season opener.
“During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench,” according to the NBA rule book. “Violators will be subject to suspension, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.”
The league didn’t buy what Denver was selling and thought Jokic acted in a more aggressive manner than Curry. A memo outlining Jokic’s suspension for Friday’s game without pay and fines for Plumlee ($25,000) and Favors ($15,000) was circulated at 11:40 a.m.
“We felt pretty strongly that he would not get suspended based on other similar instances,” Malone said. “But they saw this in a different light and made their decision.”
“The rules are the rules. You want them to be delivered consistently but they just felt Nikola was a little bit aggressive in his movements along the baseline, which they feel could have escalated the situation. That was their ruling. You live with it and respect it.”
The news of Jokic’s suspension was quickly relayed around the organization. Around half of Denver’s locker room was caught off guard by the ruling, but many of the Nuggets’ veterans who BSN Denver spoke with weren’t shocked when they learned that their franchise big man wouldn’t be available later on that night.
“I didn’t think he deserved it,” said Will Barton. “I didn’t think he did enough. But the way the league is now, he’s becoming known. I knew they were going to try and make a statement with him.”
Down his best player and with a recent 102-93 loss to Phoenix less than two weeks ago still on his mind, Malone didn’t want to take any chances against a pesky Suns team. Denver’s coach called his team back to 1000 Chopper Circle for an impromptu second shootaround later on Friday afternoon in the Nuggets’ second-floor practice gym with a new center slotted into the starting lineup. Denver ran through its plays and key sets again, this time with Plumlee alongside the Nuggets’ four other starters, Barton, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.
“That was kind of weird. Guys didn’t take it that well,” Torrey Craig joked about the second walkthrough. “But it was good for us. We came in and walked through a couple plays.”
“I hope that was the last one too,” added Barton.
The lead-up to the Nuggets’ seventh game in 14 games didn’t go as planned, but Denver made do. Malone spoke with the NBA’s president of league operations Byron Spruell by phone Friday afternoon who apologized to Denver’s coach for not getting the news to the Nuggets prior to that morning’s shootaround. Denver then put in some final tweaks to its gameplan.
There was no customary pregame ping pong match between Jokic and Nuggets equipment manager Sparky Gonzalez, which is typically won by Jokic and the first thing Denver’s probable All-Star does after arriving at the arena and changing into his workout clothes. The makeshift pickup game between Jokic and Nuggets player development coach Stephen Graham that takes place on the court during pregame warmups was postponed. There were no hallway sprints, no MVP chants or Jokic one-liners in front of his locker room after posting another triple-double or 40-point effort.
But there was still a sense of normalcy to this Nuggets win. Denver pulled away from Phoenix in the third quarter with Strahinja Jokic, Nikola’s oldest brother, watching from his regular lower bowl seat. The Nuggets expanded their lead to 20 points midway through the period and Denver’s advantage ballooned to 25 with 6:29 remaining in regulation. The Nuggets led 122-91 with 3:53 remaining when Vanderbilt made his long-awaited NBA debut, which provided an appropriate end to a 132-95 well-rounded win.
“Sometimes you’ve got to adjust on the fly. Would you have loved to have a shootaround where you knew exactly who’ was in and who was out? Sure. But that wasn’t the case,” said Malone, praising his team for their efforts in the win. “I think it speaks to our players resolve. OK. Let’s go.”
Jokic will rejoin his team Saturday as the Nuggets host the 76ers in a rare home-home back-to-back. It’s a quick turnaround for Denver and Jokic, which may be the best thing for the Nuggets’ star center. He’ll pick up his paddle and walk to the familiar auxiliary room that houses the team’s ping pong table. He’ll stare eye-to-eye with Gonzalez and will likely best the longtime Kroenke employee in a game to 21 before heading out to the court for warmups. Then, he’ll work up a sweat sprinting the length of Pepsi Center’s hallway.
“Joker’s Joker. He’s always the same no matter what,” said Craig. “Nothing fazes him.”