As the Phoenix Suns swept the Denver Nuggets last night, winning Game 4, 125-118, and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, one of the biggest storylines was the MVP and Nuggets star center Nikola Jokić getting ejected after committing an intentional hard foul on Cameron Payne. It would lead to a scuffle between the two teams and end up with Nikola Jokić being done for the game and the season. But was Jokić's ejection warranted?
At first hand, it looked pretty malicious, but when you dive into the slow-mo and details, you can see a different story. Jokić doesn't have a history or a reputation for being a dirty player, but he is no stranger to his temper getting the best of him, as frustration fouls just like this have happened to him before. After all, he is a natural-born winner, and as he saw they were slowly losing the game and the series, Jokić lost his cool. After the game, he explained why he did that:
"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe change the whistle a little bit, so I wanted to make a hard foul. Did I hit him, did I not hit him? We don't know. So I say sorry if I did."
Nikola Jokic, via Royce Young
In Jokić's words, he just tried to insert some fire into his team, gain momentum and possibly turn around the game, but it backfired dramatically. A lot of fans were shocked with ejection, claiming it was a "Flargant One" call at best. Well, you can make an argument for both cases.
If we follow the rulebook strictly, any unnecessary or aggressive contact above the shoulders results in an automatic ejection. Jokić was going for the ball but ended up catching Payne's nose in the process and knocking him down. Sure Payne tried to sell it a bit by lying down for some time, but he was shocked a bit at least. The huge wind-up Jokić took before the swipe made it feel even more dramatic and dirty, especially considering the sheer size difference between Jokić and Payne. Finally, after the play, the altercation with Booker, leading to a scuffle between the two teams, just made it obvious somebody is getting tossed.
On the other hand, you can't help but think an ejection was too much. We are talking about the MVP of our league in a do-or-die game with emotions flying high. Jokić could have gotten some benefit of the doubt from the refs. Can you even imagine someone like LeBron James getting ejected in the same type of situation? In the end, Jokić showed good sportsmanship, apologizing to Payne and showing some class. Maybe the fact it happened so far from the basket, without any possible tactical gain, made the referees think it was purely malicious. One thing is for sure. This example is just another proof of why fans think the NBA has become too soft. This is playoff basketball! Everybody is just trying to win and not hurt each other. There is a fine line between those two.
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