Denver Nuggets center and two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić was assessed a technical foul for making contact with Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia during the second quarter of Game 4 of a Western Conference semifinal on Sunday. Here’s what you need to know about what happened:
- Suns forward Josh Okogie dove into the crowd for a loose ball that bounced into the hands of Ishbia. Ishbia held onto the ball while fans helped Okogie to his feet.
- Jokić then tried grabbing the ball from Ishbia, who was reluctant to give it up. The Nuggets center made contact with him after the ball came free.
- One fan was removed from his seat for making contact with Jokić. Ishbia remained in his seat after the incident. The Suns released a statement saying, “An attendee was relocated to diffuse the situation.”
- The Suns won Game 4 129-124 to even the series at 2-2.
Nikola Jokić appeared to shove Suns owner Matt Ishbia after the play.
Jokić was given a technical foul.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 8, 2023
Now, the focus shifts to whether the league will assess any further discipline to Jokić, whose absence would surely tip the scales in this series. To analyze the situation, we asked NBA national writer Sam Vecenie and senior writer Jon Krawczynski to analyze what they saw, what they believe should happen and what they think will happen based on what the NBA rulebook says and the league’s history of ruling on such incidents.
The Bounce: Grading Mat Ishbia’s flop; will Nikola Jokić be suspended?
What was your initial reaction to the incident?
Vecenie: Why in the world did Ishbia choose to get into Jokić’s personal space? The video makes it look like Ishbia touched Jokić on the big man’s hip/back. And then when Jokić gently pushed Ishbia with his forearm, I knew that this would be “a thing” on the internet. This means it could get messy.
To recap, Jokić looks over and sees the ref on the sideline point to say it’s Denver’s ball. Jokić goes to the corner and tries to get the ball from the fans because he sees Okogie in the stands, and he wants to start a fast break – something he always tries to do 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 onto the ball for an extra split second to hopefully allow Okogie time to stand up. That led to Jokić trying to rip the ball from him. To me, Ishbia’s actions as a spectator are what led to this situation. I believe he interfered with the run of play and should have been ejected from his own arena.
Krawczynski: I needed to watch the video like eight times before I really processed what happened, and after each viewing I kept saying, “What are we doing?” And that was directed at every party involved.
Nikola Jokić, what are we doing? OK, you wanted to get the fast break started. That’s really smart with Okogie splayed out in the front row. You know what’s not smart? Trying to rip the ball out of a fan’s hands like he’s battling Deandre Ayton for a rebound. Calm down, my man.
I’m a card-carrying member of the “Jokić Is Incredible” club. The discourse around his MVP candidacy went places it had no business going and he absolutely belonged at or near the top of the voting. But this just seemed like a silly decision. It wasn’t reckless. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t dangerous. It was just unnecessary. Still not sure we needed a technical foul there. What did that accomplish, other than bad optics when Devin Booker joked (I think) afterward that “he got us a point!”
Clearly, Jokić felt like Ishbia was the aggressor. “He told me I was elbowing the fan, but the fan put his hands on me first,” he said. “I thought the league is supposed to protect us. But maybe I’m wrong.”
Ishbia is a former player so it feels like we can use basketball parlance here. It does appear that Ishbia created the contact on the play. Jokić probably should realize that the chicken wing he threw out there to clear Ishbia out was done against a 43-year-old who was listed at 5-foot-10 when he was at Michigan State. Which brings us to …
Mat Ishbia, what are we doing? That flop will go down as one of the most hilariously lame acts we’ve ever seen from an owner at a game. You played for the Spartans, not the Blue Devils, right? (Kidding, Dukies, kidding). It seems to me that Ishbia was surprised by Jokić. The ball fell in his lap, and as he stood up, he looked over to see Jokić coming toward him and starting to grab the ball. This is where I disagree with my friend Sam Vecenie. I don’t think he was intentionally holding the ball to prevent the Nuggets from going on a 5-on-4 break. I think he was just reacting in the heat of the moment.
The former player in him likely kicked in there. We all know that on the court, when someone tries to grab the ball, the last thing you do is let go of it. If that’s the initial reaction, fine. But he has to find some sense and not push up on Jokić after the initial tussle. He just has to know better than to escalate a situation with an opposing player during any game, let alone a playoff game. To paraphrase a well-known saying in the South, he may have become an NBA owner at night, but it wasn’t last night.
And finally, to the bearded guy who got ejected, what are we doing? Are you coming to the aid of the Suns’ new owner with a ferocious, three-fingered shove to the shoulder of a 6-foot-11, 290-pound Serbian? What is that going to accomplish? He deserved to be ejected for even thinking that would help even more than the extreme no-no of a fan making contact with a player.
The Pulse: Block or charge? NBA owner edition
Do you believe Jokić should be suspended?
Vecenie: Absolutely not. I think that would be an egregious overreaction by the league based on this incident. I’ll get into the specifics of why I think the rulebook is even shaky on suspending him, but just from a fan perspective, suspending Jokić would so drastically impact the competition factor in regard to this series that nobody should actually want this. The league should want its best players playing in its biggest moments. We shouldn’t want to see them shoving fans, but we also shouldn’t want spectators to interrupt the game.
In this case, where I think Ishbia was more at fault than Jokić, I would be more in favor of the Suns’ owner not being allowed to attend these games than I would Jokić not being in attendance. And I would not be in favor of that, either.
Krawczynski: No way. Let’s look more at the optics of the situation, which, yes, we know, is never taken into consideration by the powers that be in the league office. They only look at the incident in a vacuum with zero context or consideration for the setting, the players involved or anything like that.
Let’s be real here. This series is tied 2-2 and headed back to Denver. Jokić is the most important player on the Nuggets. Taking him out for a game could change the outcome of this series. As we saw with Draymond Green in the NBA Finals, the league has a history of not letting that influence its decision.
But I’m looking at the incident itself on top of the stakes. It was a little bit of a confrontation. It lasted like eight seconds. No one was hurt. It didn’t touch off a larger reaction from fans or players. It was a quick confrontation. Both parties moved on and my guess is that Ishbia would not want to see Jokić suspended.
On top of it all, this wasn’t just any player-fan interaction. This was a superstar versus the owner of the opposing team. Suspending Jokić because of a little shove of the Suns owner would open the league up to allegations of favoritism toward the Suns in a way that would be much harder to sidestep than if Jokić had pushed a regular fan.
After reviewing the incident, crew chief Tony Brothers did not deem it worthy of an ejection. Just a technical foul (and I don’t even know that it needed that). He saw it for what it was: a minor thing.
Let’s just all move on with our lives. This happened. It’s over. That’s all it has to be. No need to put the thumb on the scale of a playoff series over this.
Do you think the NBA will suspend Jokić?
Vecenie: I believe that the league will not suspend him. I’m not totally convinced that, even by the letter of the law, Jokić actually broke the rule in regard to player conduct. That refers to going into the stands as a player. The NBA Rule Book states:
“Any coach, player or trainer who deliberately enters the spectator stands during the game will be automatically ejected and the incident reported by e-mail to Basketball Operations. … The first row of seats is considered the beginning of the stands.”
Because Ishbia stands up, takes a step, and after losing the ball enters into Jokić’s personal space, Jokic did not actually reach the first row of the stands. This is not an “enter the stands” situation, at least from my viewpoint.
IF the league chooses to suspend Jokić, I’d be surprised to see it under that guideline. Rather, it would be simply the idea of bringing the game into disrepute in some regard. I just don’t see that as a likely outcome here, even with the league being hyper-vigilant on player-fan interactions.
Obviously we don’t want players shoving spectators. Jokić wasn’t right for what he did. But in this case – where Ishbia clearly is the one who initiated the incident and slowed down the run of play, and touched him on his hip/back before the forearm shove – a suspension would be an absurd decision. I thought Brothers got it right on court. Assess a technical foul to penalize something the league doesn’t want in regard to player-fan contact. And then move on with the game.
To suspend Jokić for this, in my view, would be tantamount to allowing courtside fans to start trying to goad players into situations where they are able to get players to make physical contact with them. We don’t want that. How about the league gives Jokić a call, tells him to stop letting his temper get the best of him at times (remember the Markieff Morris incident?), tells him he’s on a no-tolerance policy moving forward with these types of situations, and let’s all move on.
Krawczynski: I do not think the NBA will suspend him, either. But I do think the league will give it a LONG look. The NBA is particularly sensitive to adverse interactions between players and fans. It is something that has been a line in the sand with the league ever since the Malice at the Palace.
So while many of us look at this and say, “C’mon. No harm, no foul,” the league will treat this with the utmost seriousness. Suspending Jokić for a pivotal Game 5 would certainly send a message that any kind of physical confrontation with fans is completely unacceptable. I don’t think the league needs to act to make that message clear, but it would not shock me if league officials thought otherwise.