DENVER — It's not a level playing field in the NBA. It's more like the Fairplay area over in South Park, with the Somebodies perched up on a hill and the Nobodies like the Nuggets relegated to a valley despair.
“Golden Boy” Steph Curry and the Warriors can race down the court pointing fingers at a referee — nanny-nanny-boo-boo! — and commissioner Adam Silver turns his head to hide a chuckle.
But when Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic goes nuclear on official James Capers? Hit the road, Jack!
"He said, 'Do you want another one (technical foul)?’” Jokic said, recapping his ejection from a U-G-L-Y 95-90 loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday. “I said, I don’t care.”
There’s no crying in basketball, unless it’s the NCAA Tournament. Then let those tears flow. But these guys are pros, as the Bentleys and Benzes parked outside Pepsi Center remind us, so the Nuggets aren’t allowed to whine over the lopsided officiating that turns their star into a 7-foot punching bag. Big Honey left the game with a bloody nose in the second quarter and for good with a double-technical ejection in the fourth. No surprise, Denver lost.
In a noticeably quiet locker room after the game, Jokic sounded like the anger had subsided: "The ball is in my hands a lot, and there’s a lot of contact there. I know I'm not going to get every call, but I should get the obvious ones."
The relaxation station also left without coach Michael Malone, who appeared ready to blow his own top — not at the officials, but at Jokic to chill out.
“He can’t get tossed. I don’t care what they do to him or how bad the refereeing is. Foul call, no foul call, it doesn’t matter,” Malone said. “He’s too valuable for our team. It’s the second time that’s happened. He can’t get tossed.”
OK, so anyone who’s watched even a half of NBA ball knows there are different rules for stars. Sunday added another layer of evidence — along with his suspension for leaving the bench in a scuffle at Utah — that Jokic is not considered to be one of them, All-Star or not.
Deal with it. Life's not fair, the NBA less so. Win a playoff series before demanding preferential treatment. Jokic got a raw deal Sunday when Wizards forward Bobby Portis bear-hugged him — in a mean way — and Portis wasn’t issued a flagrant foul. Remember when Mark Jackson’s Warriors whined their way through the last playoff series played in Colorado? The untouchables weren’t perched up on the hill of respect yet. Now they are.
The next playoff series here is less than two weeks away. (Dun, dun.) And since the Nuggets have elected not to rest their 250-pound center, who’s finished most of his 74 games with a new cut or scratch on one arm, he’s as crabby as a toddler who didn’t get his nap. Who can blame him?
Thanks to a bloody nose, Jokic entered the tunnel at halftime wearing tissue stuffed up his nose, and his enormous Serbian brothers let the officials hear about it. Not only did Nemanja and Strahinja Jokic erupt at Capers, the official, but one Nuggets fan was ejected from the premises after going after the trio of officials. It’s been a while for Colorado. We forgot how this preferential treatment thing works.
Here, let’s chill out together and calm those looming playoff nerves: if the Nuggets are fortunate enough to lock down the No. 2 seed, a spot they hold by 2.5 games with six left, they can go to bed knowing it’s been nine whole years since a No. 2 seed lost a playoff series in the first round.
There, feel better? Because no matter the opponent — Clippers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder — it’s going to be a stressful reintroduction to the postseason. Carrying a high seed into the playoffs ups the ante and the level of pressure. Plus, and this is no small thing, only three Nuggets in the rotation know what postseason tensions are like: Paul Millsap (87 games), Mason Plumlee (27 games) and Will Barton (seven games).
“We have a lot of guys who have zero playoff experience,” Malone said.
The Nuggets lost their cool on Sunday. Their rattled nerves defied their season-long disposition, when they’ve been more chilled out than a Boulder art major. That’s realized in a 10-2 record vs. the Northwest Division (tied with the Warriors for the fewest division losses) and a 29-14 mark in “clutch” games (when the teams are within five points in the final 5 minutes). They’re also 10-1 on the second night of back-to-backs, an absurd record that leads the whole NBA. That (31-7) home record — tops in the West — is pretty cool as well.
“Sometimes that youthful experience is great because they don’t know what they don’t know,” Malone said.
Book’s out on the Joker, though. Just to make sure, I rambled over to the Wizards’ locker room, where Portis was hanging out, and asked the instigator how teams are gameplanning Jokic.
“The gameplan is play him one-on-one. If he scores, he scores. You’d rather have him scoring the ball than him getting his teammates involved. When all his guys are rolling they’re a tough team to stop,” Portis said.
And crawling under his skin — is that part of the plan?
"Sometimes with the emotions of the game and things aren’t going your way, it’s easy to get taken advantage of in the moment. Some guys revert to someone they’re not,” Portis said. “Obviously you’re not going to get in everyone’s head. We’re pros. But sometimes it happens.”
There you have it. If you, me and Bobby Portis know it's an effective idea to rattle Jokic, here’s a hunch the Clippers, Jazz, Spurs and Thunder know it too.