With 3:52 remaining in the third quarter and the Nuggets trailing the Suns by eight points, the NBA Most Valuable Player made a hard swipe at Cameron Payne after not getting his own foul, knocking the ball loose but also hitting Payne in the face.
The foul sparked a scuffle between the two sets of players, with Jokic and Devin Booker coming nose to nose in the middle of it all.
After everyone had been separated, Jokic was given a flagrant 2 foul – meaning he was ejected from the game – while Booker was handed a technical foul.
Jokic finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes, and without him, the Nuggets fell to the Suns 125-118 in their best-of-seven NBA playoff series to complete a four-game sweep. As a result, the Suns advance to the Western Conference finals where they will face either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.
Afterwards, Jokic said he only committed the foul as a spark for his team and that he apologized to Payne.
“I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy,” he told the media. “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.”
With the Nuggets’ season on the line facing playoff elimination, members of the sporting fraternity took to social media to question whether it was the correct decision to eject Jokic.
2020 NBA rookie of the year Ja Morant called the “league soft.”
“Playoffs. elimination game. give him a flagrant 1 and play ball man,” the Memphis Grizzlies point guard said on Twitter.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young simply said “wow” in reaction, while former NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Robert Griffin III expressed his incredulity at the decision.
“Still can’t believe they ejected MVP Jokic for hitting a ball real hard,” the 31-year-old said on Twitter.
Following their franchise-record seventh straight playoff victory, Booker admitted he held nothing against Jokic, saying it was an “emotional play.”
“I don’t think he meant harm by it,” he told the media. “It was just a frustration foul. It was tough, just defending my teammate. That was it. I saw him go up to Cam (Payne) after and apologize. I’ve played against the Joker multiple times. I know he’s not a malicious player.”
The Suns advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2010 – the last time they even reached the playoffs.