LOS ANGELES • Most National Basketball Association teams would have crumbled in the absence of three starters, but such has been the form of Nikola Jokic that the Denver Nuggets have been able to shrug off injuries to Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap.
The Serbian centre, who is averaging a near triple-double this season, has carried the surprise package to the Western Conference summit, giving Nuggets fans genuine hope of making the play-offs for the first time since the 2012-2013 season.
However, the visitors could not overcome his third-quarter ejection for a second technical foul for arguing a foul call as they suffered their biggest defeat of the term, going down 132-111 to the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Centre.
Not that Jokic was to blame for the blowout loss as he still paced his team with 19 points in just 21 minutes before being tossed from the game, which ended the Nuggets' four-game winning run and his personal streak of six straight double-doubles.
The 23-year-old refused to comment on the incident after the game, having already been fined US$25,000 (S$34,200) last month for derogatory language, but teammate Malik Beasley defended his conduct, insisting officials were treating him unfairly.
The guard told the Denver Post: "No, he definitely doesn't (get the calls he deserves). He definitely doesn't. I don't know what it is. He just doesn't get (the right) calls.
"He's a great player fighting through and tonight was the first time you'll ever see him get that mad. And, if he gets that mad, like coach (Michael Malone) said, something was wrong."
It was the first time this season the Nuggets had lost by more than 10 points as they dropped to 22-10 on Saturday night, allowing the Oklahoma City Thunder to draw level at the top of the West.
The manner of their collapse also stung the team, with the Clippers shooting 57.6 per cent from the field for a lead they never relinquished in all four quarters.
Malone held his hands up, admitting they were "not ready to compete at the level we needed to compete tonight", but felt it had been "a wake-up call to get back to Nuggets basketball".
He said: "Going 11-2 in the last few games, you can get complacent. When you get beaten by as many as we got today, it's on everybody, myself included. It's offence, it's defence, it's everything. So, bad performance for us."
On the other hand, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was thrilled with his team's second successive win, claiming their pace was "maybe as good as I've seen".
Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris scored 21 points apiece for the home team, who improved to 19-13 for joint fourth in the West.
Rivers told reporters: "I just thought our tempo set the tone. We never stopped, makes or misses."