As the Denver Nuggets edged closer to playoff elimination, league MVP Nikola Jokic was ejected from Sunday night's game with a flagrant foul 2 after taking a wild swing in frustration at Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne.
"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, 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."
Following a lengthy review, Jokic was handed the flagrant 2 and ejected from Game 4 of Denver's Western Conference semifinal series with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter and the Nuggets trailing the Suns by eight.
"I thought honestly they would not eject me," Jokic said.
With Jokic out, the Suns went on to win 125-118 to advance to the Western Conference finals, completing a 4-0 sweep at Denver. The resilient Nuggets tried to stay close, cutting Phoenix's lead to four points with 8 minutes left, but couldn't match the closing ability of Chris Paul and the Suns.
"I just didn't feel like it warranted a flagrant 2 ejection because he's making a play on the ball," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "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 2 and ejected the MVP on such a play."
The foul came after Jokic didn't get a call on a one-handed runner, as he briefly glanced over at a referee and gestured. In apparent frustration at the no-call, he ran over to take a hard swipe at the ball, hitting Payne across the face.
"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."
Suns coach Monty Williams also was taken aback.
"I didn't really think it was anything malicious," Williams said. "In those moments you have to regulate your emotions. That's what we've been talking about all season long.''
Referee David Guthrie could be heard on the broadcast explaining the decision, saying, "After replay review, there is windup, impact and follow-through."
"I think it was something like, windup, malicious intent, some other mumbo jumbo," Malone said of the explanation he was given. "Obviously, you lose the MVP, it's going to make it even harder to stave off elimination."
Suns star Devin Booker took immediate exception to the play from Jokic, confronting the big man as both teams briefly scuffled before being separated. Booker was assessed a technical foul.
"That's all I said, just 'What are you doing?'" Booker said. "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 teammate, that was it.
"I've played against the Joker multiple times," Booker said. "I know he's not a malicious player."
After he was ejected, Jokic appeared to apologize to Payne.
"I shouldn't do that. Of course it was my bad. I'm sorry," Jokic said. "But I cannot change it now. It happens."
A flagrant 2 is defined as being "unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent."
"At replay review we saw windup, impact, and follow-through, which lead to unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulders and also into the face. Which by rule met the criteria for a flagrant foul penalty 2," Guthrie explained via a pool reporter postgame.
Jokic left the game having recorded 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting, to go along with 11 rebounds and 4 assists in 28 minutes. He is only the fifth MVP ever to be swept in a playoff series, joining Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wes Unseld. For the third time in his career, Jokic led the Nuggets in the series in points, rebounds and assists.
The Suns dominated the series, winning by an average of 15.7 points. There were no answers to Paul, who displayed his mastery of the midrange throughout the series, finishing Game 4 with 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting.
"I'm not going to allow this series to define the season," Malone said. "Hopefully next year we can find a way to stay healthy and be better and see where we can go."
For the Nuggets, it was a difficult end to an inspiring season, as they overcame the devastating injury to Jamal Murray to still finish as the West's third seed and advance past the first round over the Portland Trail Blazers, while also seeing Jokic crowned as the league's MVP.
"The whole season was great, I think," Jokic said. "Until the last four games."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.