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The ball is just out of reach of Denver’s Michael Porter, Jr. during the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the conference semifinals at Ball Arena on Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

The Nuggets did not crawl off the court and out of the playoff on their bellies.

They played their guts out.

With the league MVP out.

In defeat, the Nuggets held their heads (a mile) high and made themselves and Coloradans proud. They lost the game, but not their dignity.

The Nuggets actually were spirited and inspired not by the most flagrant foul, but perhaps the most egregious foul call, in playoff history. Prominent players in the NBA and even the NFL, the mainstream and the social media, the fanatics at the arena and millions viewing on TV agreed that Nikola Jokic, the Most Valuable Player in professional basketball, was unjustly kicked out of the game for a misdemeanor, not a felony, a flagrant 2 instead of a flagrant 1.

The Nuggets may or may not have won, but the fallacious ruling was at a most critical moment in a significant game. Would LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul or any other superstar NBA player been ejected? Not likely. I’ve never seen any similar action since covering the ABA and the NBA since 1971.

The three referees should be ashamed and suspended, and the league must own its monumental mistake.

The decision always will be that the Suns swept the Nuggets in four straight and the Nuggets couldn’t overcome the loss of Jokic, but the other Nuggets refused to go easy at the end and had a realistic chance to win.

The Nuggets weren’t scared.

The Nuggets weren’t soft.

The Nuggets weren’t quitters.

Michael Malone should apologize to his team.

As I wrote after the Game 3 embarrassment, following the Games 1 and 2 humiliations, Malone should have gotten himself ejected. It finally was necessary for Nikola Jokic to get frustrated, get so agitated, get so overwrought and get thrown out of the game for the Nuggets finally to play with a sense of desperation, meaning and togetherness. But they didn’t have quite clearly enough healthy talent to beat the No. 2 seed from Arizona.

The Nuggets were one of the four finalists in the bubble blast of 2020, but all are gone now. There is a reason. They were worn out. The Nuggets did outlast the other three, a small solace.

Paul and backcourt partner Devin Booker were just too much too often too wisely for the Nuggets’ mismatched, rag-tag guards.

It hasn’t been mentioned once in the series, but one of the oldest men in the NBA, the 36-year-old Paul, finally earned his revenge with the Nuggets. Back in 2009, when the Nuggets were a top-drawer NBA team and reached the conference finals with players these players don’t even remember or know of, a 23-year-old Paul and the then-New Orleans Hornets lost in the fourth game to the Nuggets by 58 points, still the most disproportionate difference in the history of the league playoffs. Paul obviously recalls.

Paul produced his greatest game in three years and his most exceptional effort ever in the postseason by making 14 of 19 field goals — seems like he made 50 15-foot jumpers — and all nine of his free throws. He had nine assists and was in total command of the floor throughout the series and certainly in the elimination game. Booker finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds. Nobody else for the Suns was essential.

However, for once in the series, the Nuggets’ own guards were able to equalize the Phoenix guards offensively. The quartet scored 63 points and put the Nuggets in position to get close down the stretch and into the last minute.

The Suns survived — barely.

The Joker spent the fantastic finish in the locker room. Only two nights after receiving the MVP Trophy, Nikola became flustered when he believed the Nuggets weren’t getting fair treatment. As the Suns’ Cameron Payne grabbed possession, Jokic hammered down on the ball, grazing Payne’s nose, and knocked the ball away. The official acted like he had knocked off Payne’s face.

After review, Jokic shockingly was declared through for what would turn out to be the rest of the season.

The other Nuggets played on, though, and concluded the season with the best-worst loss in all of franchise history. They almost came back. They will be back.

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