Nikola Jokic saw his MVP season abruptly come to an end.
Jokic had to go out with less than four minutes in the third period of Game 4 between the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns after a flagrant 2 foul on Cameron Payne, which resulted in his automatic ejection.
At that point, the Joker was already in double-double territory with 22 points and 11 rebounds in the 28 minutes he was on the floor. He was having quite the individual performance, but his Nuggets team were not following along.
Jokic said he came up to Payne to give his team some sense of urgency. “I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy,” he explained after the loss that eliminated Denver from contention.
With the Suns up 83-75, Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. tried to make a run of their own after playing poorly in the first half. That’s when Jokic decided to take the hard foul to show his team that he wants to win it, and everyone should follow.
Unfortunately, Jokic was ejected, essentially ending the MVP’s season and the Nuggets’ chances of catching up.
“I just assumed, and we all know you should never assume, but I assumed it would be a flagrant 1 at the worst,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “From my vantage point and watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent. I’m still shocked that they called a flagrant 2 and ejected the MVP on such a play.”
Malone thought it was more of a “frustration foul” after Jokic felt like he was fouled under the rim in the previous possession. The officials didn’t see it this way and decided that the MVP should get thrown out with Denver’s season on the line.
Saying that the Nuggets’ season ended when Jokic left might sound dramatic, but it’s true. Realistically, the team couldn’t perform well without their best guy on the floor. Even on days that Jokic played well, Denver struggled to get a win. Therefore, if you remove the only player that’s keeping them alive, then naturally everything would collapse.
Without Jokic and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets just didn’t have a finisher. In the last few minutes of the match, they made a couple of short runs that cut their deficit. But the team just had no one to close the game out, allowing the Suns to cruise to the Western Conference Finals.
Removing Jokic meant removing the Nuggets from the semifinals, as simple as that, especially knowing that the Suns had dominated the first three games and were on the verge of completing a sweep.
Despite all the heartache, Jokic is still grateful and proud of his team. They went from a title contender to a handicapped team, then back to a strong team in one season.
“The whole season was great, I think, until the last four games,” Jokic said. “We fight, we never quit. Even until this day, I give the guys credit.”
In reality, this Denver team already overachieved given the number of injuries they had to deal with all season. The entire backcourt struggled to keep healthy. Murray, along with Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, and Barton, had various issues that kept them sidelined for significant amounts of time.
Halfway through the season, everybody thought the Nuggets were out. They assumed the loss of their second star and supporting guards would be too big of a loss to overcome. And yet, the MVP managed to muscle his way well beyond expectations.
That’s why even with a heartbreaking end to the season, Jokic is extremely proud of what the Nuggets have accomplished.
“I’m hoping the team walks out of the arena with their heads up. It is what it is,” he said. “Sometimes we need to accept the loss, sometimes someone can beat you, but [you have to] accept it and try to be better.”