Nuggets’ KCP on officials: On the road, we know we’re facing “eight guys out there”

INDIANAPOLIS – Nikola Jokic couldn’t help himself.

Hardwired to take advantage of an opportunity, he tried to bait a whistle with only 10 seconds left, the shot clock turned off and the Nuggets clinging to a 122-119 lead Wednesday night.

Jokic had a step on Indiana rookie Bennedict Mathurin, felt him on his hip and leaned into an ill-advised shot. He was banking on a foul call — the kind that hadn’t been there all night.

“Why not?” Jokic said from the victorious locker room, well after the Nuggets erased an 18-point second-half deficit and hung on to win 122-119. Jokic was so convinced it should’ve earned a whistle, he stared at the official a beat longer before hustling back on defense to contest the game-tying 3-point attempt from Myles Turner.

After that shot rimmed out, securing the Nuggets’ fourth win in a row and Denver’s sixth win in its last seven games, Jokic was still trying to plead his case to an official even though the point was moot. Given how the night went for Jokic, whose whistle was inconsistent at best and inaccurate at worst, perhaps he shouldn’t have expected anything different.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone told him as much after the game. So did Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose 3-point barrage in the third quarter gave Denver life on one end and whose defensive energy rallied them on the other. On the road, where the Nuggets will conclude their four-game road trip at Boston on Friday and Chicago on Sunday, Caldwell-Pope said they can’t expect any help from the officials.

“We know we’re going to be playing against, for us, eight guys out there, including the refs,” Caldwell-Pope told The Post. “We know we gotta come in and just play our basketball and not worry about the refs and the foul calls.”

Ironically, with only 12 seconds remaining, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle was berating an official when Jokic lobbied for a critical technical foul that was called. Who knows whether Jokic’s efforts influenced the call, but there was the benefit of the doubt he hadn’t been afforded all night.

On Jokic’s second foul, he was whistled for a questionable offensive foul, at best, after initiating slight contact on Turner on an offensive rebound chance. His third foul could’ve gone to Michael Porter Jr. following another Turner drive. Malone challenged it, unsuccessfully, and opted to leave Jokic in with three fouls.

About forty seconds later, Mathurin drove into the teeth of Denver’s defense and met Jokic and Aaron Gordon at the summit. The whistle blew again, Gordon raised his hand trying to earn the call, but it went to Jokic, whose first half was over at just 10:46 of playing time. Gordon was dumbfounded that Mathurin, a rookie, had drawn a whistle driving straight into Denver’s power forward and center. Equally as dumbfounded and significantly more irate, Malone earned his own tech for the sequence.

Jokic’s delicate whistle would’ve been the story of the game had the Nuggets not clamped down on defense and defended. In the second half, Denver outscored Indiana 66-49, limiting the Pacers to only 41% shooting from the field.

“Everybody was competing on defense,” Malone said. “They felt us in that second half.”

Though there were marked contributions up and down the roster – both Porter and Jamal Murray chipped in 10 second-half points – the core of the comeback came via Gordon and Caldwell-Pope. Both played unrelenting defense on one end, complementing it with attacking, downhill offense.

“That’s my brand … is never giving up,” Caldwell-Pope said.

Said Gordon, whose 18-point, 17-rebound, six-assist night buoyed the win, “When (Jokic) comes off the floor, we gotta just figure out how to manufacture points.”

They hung on long enough until Jokic could return, sitting on his fifth foul, for the final nine minutes of the night. There, he poured in 11 of his 24 points, and without committing another foul, salvaged a bizarre, thrilling night in Indiana.

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