During the second quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday, Denver Nuggets center and two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic was assessed a technical foul for contact with Phoenix Suns owner Matt Ishbia. Here’s what you need to know about what happened:
- Suns forward Josh Okogie dived into the crowd for a loose ball in Ishbia’s hands. While Ishbia was holding the ball, the fans helped Okogie to his feet.
- Jokic then tries to wrestle the ball from Isbia, who is reluctant to give it up. The Nuggets center made contact with him after the ball was loose.
- A fan was ejected from his seat for contacting Jokic. After the incident, Ishbia remained in her seat. The Suns released a statement saying, “A participant has been transferred to diffuse the situation.”
- The Suns won Game 4 129-124 to tie the series at 2-2.
Now, the focus shifts to whether the league will value any more discipline for Jokic, whose absence will surely raise the bar in this series. To analyze the situation, we asked NBA national writer Sam Veseny and senior writer Jon Krawczynski to analyze what the NBA rulebook says and what they’ve seen, what they believe should happen, and what they think will happen based on the league’s history. .
What was your initial reaction to the incident?
General: Why in the world did Ishbia choose to enter Jokic’s personal space? The video shows Ishbia touching Jogik on the waist/back of the elder. Then when Jokic gently nudged Ishbia with his forearm, I knew it was “a thing” on the Internet. This means it can get confusing.
To recap, Jokic would look back, look at the marker on the sideline and say it was Denver’s ball. Jokic goes to the corner and tries to get the ball from the fans because he sees Okogie in the stands and wants to start a fast break – he always tries to do it as quickly as possible when he sees a man advantage. My guess is that Ishbia, a former college basketball player under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, recognized this and decided to hold the ball for an extra split second to allow Okogie to stand up. Jocic tried to rip the ball away from him. For me, Ishfia’s actions as a viewer led to this point. I believe he interfered with the flow of the game and should have been ejected from his own stadium.
Krawczynski: I had to watch the video eight times before I could process what had happened, and after each viewing I thought, “What are we doing?” It is aimed at every party involved.
Nikola Jokic, what are we doing? Well, you want to start a fast break. That’s a very smart Ogoki has splatted on the front line. You know what’s not smart? Deandre tries to rip the ball out of a fan’s hands as he battles Ayton for a rebound. Be still, my man.
I am a card-carrying member of the “Jokic is Incredible” club. The discourse surrounding his MVP candidacy went to places where it had no business, and he was completely at or near the polls. But this seemed like a foolish decision. It is not irresponsible. It is not malicious. It was not dangerous. It was unnecessary. Still not sure we need a technical glitch there. “He got us a point!” When Devin Booker joked that (I think) it accomplished nothing but bad optics.
Clearly, Jogic Ishbia felt like an aggressor. “He told me I was going to elbow the fan, but the fan put his hand on me first,” she said. “I thought the league was supposed to protect us. But I could be wrong.”
As Ishbia is a former player, I feel I can use the basketball language here. Ishbiya seems to have made the connection in the play. Jokic probably realized that the chicken wing he threw there to throw out Ishbia was done against a 43-year-old listed at 5-foot-10 at Michigan State. This brings us to…
Mad Ishbia, what are we doing? That failure would turn out to be one of the most hilariously lame acts we’ve ever seen from a franchise in a game. You played for the Spartans, not the Blue Devils, right? (jokes, thuggees, jokes). I think Ishbia surprised Jogic. The ball landed in his lap and as he stood up, he looked up to see Jokic coming towards him and starting to catch the ball. This is where I disagree with my friend Sam Veseny. I don’t think he held the ball on purpose to stop the Nuggets on the 5-on-4 break. I think he reacted at this point.
Maybe the former player in him kicked in there. We all know that on the court, when someone is trying to catch the ball, the last thing you want to do is give it up. If this is the initial reaction, good. But instead of pushing Jokic after the initial tussle, he needs to find some sense. He should know better than to escalate the situation with an opposing player during any game, let alone a playoff game. To paraphrase a saying well known in the South, he may have become an NBA franchise overnight, but not last night.
And finally, to the evicted beardie, what do we do? Are you coming to the Suns’ new owner’s aid with a ferocious, three-fingered shove on the 6-foot-11, 290-pound Serbian’s shoulder? What is it going to accomplish? A fan deserves to be kicked out for thinking he’s more helpful than making a connection with a player.
Do you believe Jokic should be suspended?
General: Absolutely not. I think that was an overreaction by the league based on this incident. I think that’s why the rulebook is shuddering at suspending him, but from the fans’ point of view, suspending Jokic would seriously hurt the competitive factor of this series, and nobody really wants it. The league needs its best players to play in its biggest moments. We don’t want to see them inciting fans, but we don’t want spectators interrupting the game either.
At this point, while I think Ishbia is more at fault than Jokic, I’d be more in favor of Suns ownership not being allowed to attend these games than Jokic not attending. And I will not be in favor of it.
Krawczynski: No way. Let’s look more at the optics of the situation that were never taken into account by the powers that be in the league office, yes, we know. They only see the incident in a vacuum, with zero context or setting, players involved or anything like that.
Let’s be real here. The series is tied 2-2 and Denver is back. Jokic is the most important player on the Nuggets. Taking him out for one game could change the outcome of this series. As we saw with Draymond Green in the NBA Finals, the league has a history of letting it affect the outcome.
But I am watching the incident at the top. It was a bit of a conflict. It lasted eight seconds. No one was injured. It didn’t elicit a big reaction from fans or players. It was a quick skirmish. Both parties moved on and my guess is that Ishbia didn’t want Jogic to be suspended.
After all, it’s not just any player-fan interaction. It was against a superstar and an opposing owner. Suspending Jokic due to little motivation from the Suns’ ownership would open the league up to pro-Suns accusations, which would be much harder to sidestep than if Jokic pushed a regular fan.
After reviewing the incident, committee chairman Tony Brothers did not deem it worthy of an ejection. A technical mistake (I didn’t even know it was needed). He saw it for what it was: a trifle.
We all move on with our lives. This happened. is over. That’s all there is to it. No need to put a thumb on the scale of a playoff series any more.
Do you think the NBA will suspend Jokic?
General: I hope the league doesn’t suspend him. Even by the letter of the law, I’m not entirely convinced that Jokic actually violated the player conduct rule. It means going to the stands as a player. The NBA rulebook states:
“A coach, player or coach who intentionally enters the spectator stands during a game will be automatically ejected and the incident will be reported to Basketball Operations via email. … The first row of seats is considered the beginning of the stand.”
Jokic didn’t actually reach the first row of the stands as Ishbia stood up, took a step, and got into Jokic’s personal space after losing the ball. It’s not a “get into the stand” situation, at least from my perspective.
IF I’d be surprised to see the league choose to suspend Jokic under that guideline. Rather, it would be an attempt to bring the game into disrepute in some way. Even if the league is more vigilant about player-fan interactions, I don’t see that as a possible outcome here.
We don’t want the players to drive away the audience. What Joke did was wrong. But in this case – Ishbia clearly started the incident, slowed the flow of the game, and touched him on his groin/back – a suspension would be a ridiculous decision. I thought Brothers got it right in court. Assess technical fouls to penalize something the league doesn’t want regarding player-fan interaction. Then continue the game.
Suspending Jokic for this would, in my view, be tantamount to trying to provoke players into situations where the stadium’s fans could physically come into contact with them. We don’t want that. How the league calls Jokic, sometimes tells him to let his temper go (remember the Markieff Morris incident?), tells him he has a zero-tolerance policy in these types of situations, and let’s all move on.
Krawczynski: I don’t think the NBA will suspend him. But I think the league will give it a long look. The NBA is particularly sensitive to adverse interactions between players and fans. It’s been a league thing since Malice was in the palace.
So many of us look at this and say, “Come on. No harm, no foul,” the league will take very seriously. Suspending Jokic for a pivotal Game 5 would certainly send the message that any kind of physical confrontation with fans is completely unacceptable. I don’t think the league needs to act to clarify that message, but it wouldn’t shock me if league executives think otherwise.
(Top photo: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)