SAN FRANCISCO — The defining moment of the Nuggets’ Game 2 loss to the Warriors wasn’t a Steph Curry 3-pointer or a Jordan Poole blowby. It wasn’t a Draymond Green pass or a Klay Thompson jumper. It was the infighting that happened on the Nuggets’ sideline midway through the third quarter.

After a Monte Morris 3-pointer led to a Warriors timeout, Will Barton and DeMarcus Cousins had to be separated near the Nuggets’ bench. It’s unclear what started the confrontation, but all of a sudden Barton and Cousins were chest-to-chest. Morris and Jamal Murray jumped in to separate the two but Barton kept yelling in Cousins’ direction. Then after Barton sat down on the bench, Cousins kept chirping at his teammate. Barton rose from his seat and tried to move towards Cousins. Again, he was restrained by teammates.

“Just some goofy shit that happened on the bench that I shouldn’t entertain,” Barton said when asked about the incident. “I can’t let that happen in the series, in the Playoffs, in the game. I’ve got to be better than that.”

At that point, Game 2 was over. It was a wrap. The Warriors had broken the Nuggets. It seemed like Nikola Jokic realized it too. Soon, he was bound for the visiting locker room after referee Kevin Cutler handed him his second technical for arguing a no-call against Draymond Green with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Green strutted around the Chase Center floor and waved bye to his adversary. He won the battle and is on his way to winning the war.

“I’m not supposed to do that, and I’m not going to do that. I think I got fouled in the moment because I heard the slap,” Jokic said. “That’s why I just reacted.”

“He said it’s not a foul. That’s his point of view.”

The Nuggets embarrassed themselves Monday night in Golden State. Not just because they got blown out (again) 126-106 but because of how it happened. This isn’t a young, inexperienced team that doesn’t know what playoff basketball is all about. This is a veteran group that knows the postseason is way more physical than a random Tuesday night in December against the Rockets. Of course you’re not going to get the same calls in the playoffs. Of course, you’re allowed to play through more contact now than you are in the regular season.

You have to be mentally strong to survive in the playoffs against a team that’s so much more talented than you like Golden State is. The Nuggets weren’t Monday night, and the Warriors capitalized. They knew. Adversity hit and Denver unraveled.

With tonight’s meltdown on tape for the rest of the league, the word is out on these Nuggets. Get under their skin and there’s a chance they split at the seams.

“We’ve got no fucking chance if we’re going to be apart,” Morris said. “We’ve got to stay locked in, stay together. That’s the only way we give ourselves an opportunity.”

It’s a distant memory now, but the Nuggets actually led 26-25 after the first quarter of Game 2. Denver even held a 12-point advantage with 7:25 left in the second quarter. But as leads tend to do vs. this Warriors team, it quickly vanished. Golden State caught fire just before halftime for a second-straight game. The Warriors went on runs of 16-0 and 23-4 late in the second quarter to take a 57-51 lead at the break.

“I mean, we’ve got to make them feel us,” said Morris. “They’re out there laughing, dancing around. Shit’s embarrassing. We’ve just got to be tougher. Coach can do what he’s got to do. He’s given us the great game plan. We’ve just got to be tougher, man. We can’t let the usual suspects go out here (and score) 21, 29 and 34. We’ve got to make somebody else beat us. I just think that’s what it is. But we’ve got to see what we’re made of. Real men are not going to fold, but we’ll see what we’re made of.”

Jokic finished with 26 points (9-20 FG’s), 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal, and was frustrated by Green the entire night. While Jokic equaled his Game 1 free-throw total (2) in the first 60 seconds of Monday’s first quarter, those favorable calls gradually quieted. After getting his shot blocked by Gary Payton II for the third time in two games, Jokic’s frustration continued to mount. He took offense to a playful slap on the butt from Payton as the two teams went towards their respective huddles during a timeout late in the first quarter.

“He doesn’t need to do that,” Jokic said. “I just reacted. No need to do that.”

Jokic needs to be better. The entire Nuggets roster does. No one’s playing up to their potential and good enough to extend this series beyond four games in what’s trending towards the Nuggets getting swept in consecutive playoff series. But Jokic is the leader of this group. He should be above that bullshit.

The back-to-back MVP took it upon himself in the third quarter. He shot nine times and made four baskets. He scored 10 in the period and combined with Bones Hyland to score 19 of the Nuggets’ 30 third-quarter points. But then in the fourth decided he had enough off the no-calls, picked up another technical, and watched the remainder of the loss from the locker room. The Nuggets’ second-leading scorers in Game 2 were Barton, Morris and Hyland. All three finished with 12 points.

“I told Nikola, I said, ‘As frustrated as you are with the referees,’ and I feel his frustration, I really do, I think he’s getting fouled like he thinks he’s getting fouled, he’s not getting the call, but he has to find a way to play through that. He’s way too valuable, way too important for our team to be in the locker room watching the end of the game. Also as a leader of this team, he’s got to show guys in adverse times when things aren’t going your way, ‘You’ve got to find a way to fight through it, be mentally tough.’ That’s going to be a challenge for him moving forward.”

“Same thing with Will and DeMarcus. For me, I know it’s coming from a good place, and sometimes how you handle those situations, but we just have to find a way to be just more mentally tough and more poised. When things went awry tonight, we lost our composure, we lost our poise.”

It was a depressing scene following Game 2. Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly fist-bumped every player and coach as they walked off the court postgame. Most of them had their heads hung. Connelly then quietly huddled with Josh and Stan Kroenke, the latter of which was dressed in a dark velvet blazer paired with faded blue jeans, outside the Nuggets’ locker room.

Who knows what was actually uttered inside those closed doors amongst the team. When speaking with the media, Barton echoed Malone’s comments and said that most of all, the Nuggets have to be tougher both physically and mentally. They have to show more fight. They have to do a better job executing the game plan. But Barton also said that the talking Denver did amongst themselves postgame “ain’t going to work.” The Nuggets just need to play better.

Is it too little too late? It sounds like it might be.

“We all should be able to take corrective criticism, and also with that being said, being grown men, it’s the way you approach another man,” Morris said about 30 minutes earlier when asked if there’s any concern about where things currently stand. “To me, I just feel like a lot of emotions flared up, but it’s stuff we should have been talking about earlier in the year. You can’t go into war this late in the season and now try to talk about things that’s gone wrong.”

Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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