It looked like a frustration foul at the time — and Jokic has a history of those. He had just not gotten a call when he felt he was fouled, his team was down seven in a close-out game, and he wasn’t getting much help from his teammates.
Jokic said after the game he was just trying to change the game’s momentum when he swung hard to strip the ball out of Cameron Paynye’s hands and caught a lot of his face on the way.
Jokic got ejected after this hard foul on Payne 😯 pic.twitter.com/EvG1Dfvuub
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 14, 2021
Jokic was ejected after the play was reviewed. While that ejection followed the letter of the law — wind up, contact, follow through, and it was unnecessarily hard — it came as a surprise to see the MVP ejected from a closeout playoff game for a play that would have been a Flagrant 1 to plenty of referee crews during the season. Unfortunately, consistency on these calls has never been the NBA’s strong suit.
“I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy,” Jokic said after the game via the Associated Press. “I tried to make a hard foul. Did I hit him? I didn’t know. I say sorry if I did because I didn’t want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he also was surprised by the call (again, from the AP).
“Before they had determined their decision on the Flagrant 2, I had watched a replay myself on one of the coaches’ computers behind the bench and I just assumed it would be a Flagrant 1 at the worst,” Malone said. “From my vantage point in watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent. I think it was a frustration. Nikola probably felt the last couple of plays when he had the ball he had no received a foul call and he went over there to take a foul, which he’s done plenty of times before. A lot of players do that.
“I didn’t feel like it warranted a Flagrant 2 ejection because he’s making a play on the ball,” Malone said. “There’s marginal contact to Cameron Payne‘s nose, I believe. So, I was shocked. I’m still a little bit shocked that they called a Flagrant 2 and ejected the MVP on such a play.”
The NBA has said intent doesn’t matter; it doesn’t want its officials trying to get in the heads of players and guess why they did something, they want to focus on results. But context should matter, and it didn’t to this officiating crew, which essentially ended any dreams of a Denver comeback. Phoenix went on to sweep the Nuggets out of the playoffs.
It’s an unfortunate way for Jokic’s historic MVP season to end. But it was going to end soon at the hands of the Suns anyway. It just could have been done more gracefully.