NBA MVP Nikola Jokic did not expect to be ejected as the Denver Nuggets were swept from the playoffs in a controversial decision that surprised head coach Michael Malone and Phoenix Suns counterpart Monty Williams.
Jokic was tossed in the third quarter of Denver's 125-118 defeat to the second-seeded Suns, who sealed a 4-0 series victory in the Western Conference semi-finals on Sunday.
Crowned MVP on Tuesday, Jokic was assessed a flagrant two foul following a lengthy review after taking a swing at Suns guard Cameron Payne in Game 4.
Jokic became the first MVP swept in a postseason series since Magic Johnson in 1989 and the Serbian star discussed the incident post-game.
"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe change the whistle a little bit, so I wanted to make a hard foul," Jokic said.
"Did I hit him [Payne], did I not hit him? We don't know. So I say sorry if I did because I did not want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose. I thought honestly they would not eject me."
"I shouldn't do that. Of course it was my bad. I'm sorry," Jokic said. "But I cannot change it now. It happens."
Already facing an uphill task to avoid elimination, Jokic's absence made life even tougher for the third-seeded Nuggets as Suns duo Chris Paul and Devin Booker dominated.
"I just didn't feel like it warranted a flagrant two ejection because he's making a play on the ball," said Malone.
"There's marginal contact to Cameron Payne's nose I believe. So I was shocked, I'm still a little bit shocked that they called a flagrant two and ejected the MVP on such a play."
"From my vantage point and watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent," Malone said.
"I think it was a frustration foul, Nikola probably felt the last couple plays when he had the ball he had not received a foul call. And he went over there to take a foul. Which he has done plenty of times. A lot of players do that."
"I didn't really think it was anything malicious," said Williams. "In those moments you have to regulate your emotions. That's what we've been talking about all season long.''
Our 2020-21 season has come to an end. pic.twitter.com/sggkcMo1jo— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) June 14, 2021
Jokic and Suns All-Star Booker were involved in a confrontation following the incident as a scuffle briefly broke out.
But Booker – whose Suns reached the Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 – said: "That's all I said, just 'What are you doing?' It's just an emotional play. I don't think he meant harm by it. Just a frustration foul. It's tough, just defending my team-mate, that was it.
"I've played against the Joker multiple times. I know he's not a malicious player."