Even in a sweep, Nikola Jokic's MVP season ended earlier than expected.
With his team down 3-0 in the Western Conference semifinals, the Denver Nuggets star was ejected from Game 4 for a flagrant 2 foul. Jokic received the foul for a hard blow to the face of Suns guard Cameron Payne, which was deemed to have "wind-up, impact and follow-through."
It would prove to be Jokic's final play of the season:
NBA replay center head Jason Phillips told the TNT broadcast that Jokic's hit met the criteria for "unnecessary and excessive contact," resulting in the ejection of the league MVP. Nuggets fans obviously disagreed with the decision, and even chanted "M-V-P" as the hit was show on replay.
Suns star Devin Booker also received a technical foul from the incident for immediately and physically confronting Jokic after the foul.
While Payne fell to the floor after the hit, he was healthy enough to remain in the game. Jokic also appeared to apologize to Payne while still on the floor.
Jokic's ejection was the absolute last thing the Nuggets needed at the time, with the team down eight points in the game and a loss away from elimination. They would eventually lose 125-118, becoming the first team with the NBA MVP to get swept since the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers.
Nuggets coach says foul was 'marginal contact'
Denver coach Michael Malone was understandably unhappy after the game, blasting the decision to eject Jokic on what Malone deemed "marginal contact."
"Before they had determined their decision on the flagrant 2, I had watched the replay myself on one of the coach's computers behind the bench, and I just assumed — and we all know you should never assume — but I assumed it would be a flagrant 1 at the worst. From my vantage point, and watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent.
"I think it was a frustration foul. I feel Nikola probably felt the last couple of plays when we had the ball, he had not received a foul call. He went over there to take a foul, which he has plenty of times before. A lot of players do that, and I just didn't feel it warranted a flagrant 2 ejection because he's making a play on the ball.
"There was marginal contact to Cameron Payne's nose, I believe. So I was shocked, I'm still a little bit shocked, that they called it a flagrant 2 and ejected the MVP on such a play."
"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe to change the whistle a little bit, so I tried 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, because I didn't want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose."
Meanwhile, crew chief David Guthrie reiterated that Jokic's strike of Payne was deserving of a flagrant 2, telling a pool reporter the following:
QUESTION: “What warranted the Flagrant 2 after watching the replay on Nikola Jokic’s foul on Cameron Payne in the third quarter?”
GUTHRIE: “At replay review we saw wind up, impact, and follow through, which lead to unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulders and also into the face. Which by rule met the criteria for a Flagrant Foul Penalty 2.”
NBA players react to Nikola Jokic's ejection
There was some disagreement on social media over the decision to call the hit a flagrant 2, rather than a flagrant 1. That included the NBA's own players, with last year's Rookie of the Year saying Jokic can't be kicked out of an elimination game like that:
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