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Malone ejected as Nuggets cruise past Spurs for seventh straight win

Nikola Jokic was in the middle of another masterpiece — a near-miss triple-double with 25 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds — when head coach Michael Malone had seen enough.

Not of Jokic, of course, but of the way that other teams have continued to take liberties with the league’s MVP favorite, while the referees regularly swallowed their whistles. Following Sunday’s win over the Magic, Malone discussed how the league’s statistically significant difference between Jokic’s free-throw attempts and ones handed to the league’s more-famous stars was getting to him.

“You can sense the frustration,” Malone said. “I want him to focus on playing and not get caught up in the refs because that can take you off your task at hand, so that’s where I have to help him.”

Malone helped Jokic on Wednesday by making his points both loudly and repeatedly, earning a pair of technicals and getting tossed from the game in the second quarter.

“That’s been brewing for a while, and my job as a head coach is to fight and protect all of my players,” Malone said after the game.

Despite a third-period hiccup that saw the Spurs rip off a dozen consecutive points, assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. deftly guided the Nuggets to their seventh straight win, and afterwards, Jokic addressed how Malone’s outburst affected the team.

“He’s doing that the whole year. He’s always talking to the officials,” Jokic said. “We are trying to build up to that kind of team, family atmosphere.”

Following the game, Malone set his star center up, suggesting that Jokic would pay Malone’s impending fine for his ejection, saying, “The best part about it is Nikola ran up to me after the game and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got your back, whatever comes your way, I got the wallet out.’ I really appreciate it.”

Jokic said no such thing, but the good-natured Serbian was happy to go along with Malone’s fib.

“I have no option right now. He threw me under the bus,” Jokic teased. “He’s got your back; the whole team’s got my back. It’s the easiest thing I can do for him.”

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NEXT UP: Nuggets (33-18) vs. Spurs (24-25) | Friday, Apr. 9 at 7:00 p.m.

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TEAM NOTES

• The Nuggets have won seven straight and are 6-0 since acquiring Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee at the trade deadline last month.

• Denver landed two players on ESPN’s list of the best 25 players under the age of 25. Jamal Murray (24) ranked 13th, and teammate Michael Porter Jr. (22) ranked 14th. Two of the Nuggets’ other starters aren’t much older; Aaron Gordon is 25 and Nikola Jokic turned 26 in February. In 2018, Jokic ranked fifth and Gordon ranked 21st on the same list. Jokic moved up to No. 3 in 2019 before turning 25 during the 2020 season.

• Assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. took the Nuggets’ reins after head coach Michael Malone was ejected, and the team didn’t miss a beat, holding the Spurs to only 44 points in the second half.

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PLAYER NOTES

• Jamal Murray missed both games of this back-to-back with a sore knee. “We’re in the middle of six games in nine nights, three games in four nights, so the schedule has obviously been very demanding,” head coach Michael Malone said. “We’ve asked a lot of Nikola (Jokic), Jamal, all of our guys, and he’s banged up, so he needs this rest to try and get back as healthy as possible this season.”

• Paul Millsap was inactive on Wednesday as head coach Michael Malone tries to find rest for the 36-year-old forward. With Javale McGee and JaMychal Green available, the Nuggets had enough big men to feel confident in giving Millsap the night off.

• Monte Morris didn’t start in Jamal Murray’s absence Wednesday, but head coach Michael Malone suggested that there wasn’t anything to read into it; the Nuggets would simply prefer to minimize Morris’ minutes where possible for a while. Morris missed 11 games with a quadriceps strain in March.

• Facundo Campazzo got the start in place of Jamal Murray. The 30-year-old rookie scored six points on 2-for-7 shooting while grabbing five rebounds and handing out a pair of assists. Campazzo, at minus-2, was the only Nuggets starter in negative plus/minus territory.

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THE FINAL WORD

“At this point of the season, we’re good. At the beginning of the season, we were trying to find ourselves, but right now we’re playing really well.” — Nikola Jokic, on the Nuggets’ seventh straight victory.

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INJURY WATCH

• Jamal Murray (knee) missed the Apr. 6 and Apr. 7 games and is day-to-day.
• Greg Whittington (knee) last played on Mar. 15 and is considered week-to-week.

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ROTATION (MINUTES)

Starters:
G Facundo Campazzo (28)
G-F Will Barton (31)
F Michael Porter Jr. (31)
F Aaron Gordon (24)
C Nikola Jokic (30)

Bench:
G-F P.J. Dozier (28)
G Monte Morris (19)
F JaMychal Green (19)
C JaVale McGee (14)
F Bol Bol (4)
F Vlatko Cancar (4)
G Markus Howard (4)
F Zeke Nnaji (4)
G-F Gary Clark (1)

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Shawn Drotar is the host of “The Fan Late Night with Shawn Drotar;” weeknights from 10:00 p.m. to midnight — only on 104.3 The Fan. Follow him on Twitter at @sdrotar.