Denver Nuggets center and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic has been assessed a technical foul for making contact with Phoenix Suns owner Matt Ichpia during the second quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday. Here’s what you need to know about what happened:
- Suns forward Josh Okoji sprinted through the crowd to put a shot that smashed into Ishpea’s hand. Ichpea held the ball while fans helped Okogie to his feet.
- Joki then tried to grab the ball from Ishbia, who was reluctant to give it up. The Nuggets center called him after the ball came free.
- A fan was removed from his seat for making contact with Jokic. Ichpia remained in his seat after the incident. The Suns issued a statement saying, “An attendee has been moved to de-escalate the situation.”
- The Suns won Game 4 129-124 to tie the series at 2-2.
Now, the focus is turning to whether the league will institute any additional discipline for Jokic, whose absence will surely tip the scales in this series. To analyze the situation, we asked NBA National Writer Sam Vesini and Senior Writer John Krawczynski to analyze what they saw, what they think should happen and what they think will happen based on what the NBA rulebook and league history say to judge such incidents.
Rebound: Matt Ishpia rated fail; Will Nikola Jokic be suspended?
What was your initial reaction to the accident?
Vicini: Why on earth did Ishpia choose to enter Jokic’s personal space? The video makes it look as if Ichpia touched Jokic on the big guy’s hip/back. And then when Jokic gently nudged Ishbija with his forearm, I knew this was going to be a “thing” on the internet. This means it can get messy.
To recap, Jokić looked and saw the umpire on the side point to say it was a Denver ball. Joki goes into the corner and tries to get the ball from the crowd because he sees Okogie in the stands, and wants to start a quick break – something he always tries to do as quickly as possible when he sees a man advantage. My guess is that Ishpia, a former college basketball player under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, realized this and decided to hold on to the ball for an extra split second in hopes of allowing Okoji time to stand up. This results in Joki trying to snatch the ball from him. For me, it was Eshpia’s actions as a bystander that led to this situation. I think he got in the way of play and should have been sent off.
Krawczynski: I needed to watch the video eight times before I could process what really happened, and after each viewing I kept saying, “What do we do?” And that was directed at every interested party.
Nikola Jokic, what do we do? Well, I wanted to start the quick breakfast. That’s really smart with Okogie in the front row. You know what’s not smart? He tries to snatch the ball from a fan’s hands as if he’s fighting Deandre Ayton for a rebound. Calm down, my man.
I am a cardholder member of the “Joki Is Incredible” club. The rhetoric about his MVP nomination went to places where there is no business, and he belonged absolutely at or near the top of the vote. But this seemed like a silly decision. He wasn’t reckless. He wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t serious. It was just unnecessary. I’m still not sure we need a technical bug there. What did that achieve, other than bad visuals when Devin Booker joked (I think) afterwards “It brought us to a point!”
Jokic clearly felt Ichpia was the aggressor. He said, “He told me I was the elbows of the fan, but the fan put his hands on me first.” “I thought the league was supposed to protect us. But maybe I’m wrong.”
Ishbala is a former player so it looks like we can use the language of basketball here. It appears that Ishbia is the one who establishes the connection in the play. Perhaps Jokić should realize that the chicken wing he threw there to clear Ishbia out was against a 43-year-old who was listed at 5-foot-10 when he was at Michigan State. Which leads us to…
Matt Eshbiyeh What do we do? This flop will go down as one of the most dismal actions we’ve ever seen from Malik in a game. You played for the Spartans, not for the Blue Devils, right? (kidding, dukes, kidding). It seems to me that Ichpia was taken aback by Jokic. The ball landed in his lap, and as he was standing up, he looked up to see Jokic approaching him and starting to grab the ball. This is where I disagree with my friend Sam Vesini. I don’t think he was intentionally holding the ball to prevent the Nuggets from breaking 5-on-4. I think he was just reacting in the heat of the moment.
It is likely that the previous player in it kicked there. We all know that on the field, when someone is trying to grab the ball, the last thing you do is give it away. If this was the initial reaction, fine. But he has to find some logic and not put pressure on Jokic after the initial struggle. He just has to know better than to escalate the situation with an opposing player during any game, let alone a playoff. To paraphrase a popular saying in the South, he may have become the owner of the NBA in the night, but that wasn’t last night.
And finally, to the bearded boy who got kicked out, what are we going to do? Did you come to the aid of the Suns’ new owner with a fierce three-finger thrust on the shoulder of a 6-foot-11, 290-pound Serb? What will that achieve? He deserved to be sent off even if he thought it would help more than not having any fans engage with a player.
Pulse: mass or charge? NBA Owner’s Edition
Do you think Jokic should be suspended?
Vicini: of course not. I think that would be a terrible reaction by the league based on this incident. I’ll go into the details of why I think the rulebook is shaky even on commentary, but just from a fan standpoint, Jokić’s suspension is going to affect the competition factor so much in regards to this series that no one should really want that. The league should want its best players to play in its biggest moments. We shouldn’t see them push the fans, but we also shouldn’t want the spectators to boycott the match.
In this case, where I think Ishbala was more wrong than Joki, I’d be more in favor of not letting the Suns owner attend these games than not having Joki. Nor will I support that.
Krawczynski: impossible. Let’s take a closer look at the optics of the situation, which, yeah, as we know, is never taken into account by the authorities in the league office. They just view the incident in a vacuum with no context or consideration for the setting or the players involved or anything like that.
Let’s be real here. This series is tied 2-2 and back in Denver. Jokić is the most important player for the Nuggets. Taking him out to 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 view the incident itself above the stakes. It was a bit of a confrontation. It lasted eight seconds. No one is hurt. This did not affect a greater reaction from the fans or the players. It was a quick encounter. Both sides kept going and I think Ichveia don’t want to see Jokic hanging.
On top of all of that, this wasn’t just an interaction between players and fans. This was a star versus his opposing team. Suspending Jokić over a small push from the Suns’ owner would open the league to allegations of favoritism toward the Suns in a way that would be much more difficult to avoid than if Jokić had paid a casual fan.
After reviewing the incident, crew chief Tony Brothers did not consider it deserving of firing. Just a technical glitch (and I don’t even know he needed to). He saw it for what it was: something secondary.
Let’s just move on to our lives. This may have happened. I finish. That’s all it should be. No need to put your thumb on the Qualifier Series scale above this one.
Do you think the NBA will suspend Jokic?
Vicini: I think the league won’t stop him. I’m not entirely convinced that even under the law, Jokić broke the rule with regard to player behaviour. This refers to going into the stands as a player. The NBA rule book states:
“Any coach, player or coach who intentionally enters the spectator stands during a game will be automatically ejected and the incident reported via email to the Basketball Operations Department. … The first row of seats is considered to be the beginning of the stands.”
As Ichpia stands up and takes a step, and after losing the ball enters Joki’s personal space, Jokic has not actually reached the first row of the stands. This is not an “enter the stands” situation, at least in my view.
if The league chose to suspend Joki, and I’d be surprised to see him under that guideline. Instead, it would just be an idea to make the game notorious in some respect. I don’t see that as a likely outcome here, even as the federation is being very careful about player and fan interactions.
We obviously don’t want players who are paying spectators. Jokić wasn’t right for what he did. But in this case – where it was evidently Ishbilla who started the incident and slowed the run of play, touching him on his hip/back before the forearm strike – the suspension would be a ridiculous decision. I thought the brothers got it right in court. Evaluate a technical foul to penalize something the league doesn’t want in terms of player-fan communication. Then go to the game.
For Jokić to suspend this, in my opinion, would be tantamount to allowing stadium fans to start trying to get players into situations where they are able to get players to come into 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 in the way sometimes (remember the Markieff Morris incident?), tells him it has a zero-tolerance policy moving forward with these kinds of situations, and let’s all move on.
Krawczynski: I don’t think the NBA is going to stop him either. But I think the league will give him a long look. The NBA is particularly sensitive to negative interactions between players and fans. It’s something that’s been in the sand with the League since Malice in the Palace.
So while many of us look at this and say, “Come on. Do no harm,” the League is going to take this very seriously. Jokić’s pivotal Game 5 suspension is sure to send the message that any kind of physical confrontation with fans is completely unacceptable. I don’t think the league needs to move to clarify that message, but it wouldn’t shock me if league officials thought otherwise.
(Top photo: Aaron Ontiveros/Getty Images)
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