Nikola Jokic had a career high 53 points in the Denver Nuggets’ 129-124 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinals series. But all the postgame chatter was about him grabbing a ball away from the Suns owner Mat Ishbia at courtside and Ishbia’s apparent flop at the ensuing contact.
With two and a half minutes left in the second quarter, momentum took Josh Okogie of the Suns and the ball into the front row. Okogie wound up sprawled across some fans while the ball ended up in the hands of Ishbia.
Jokic tried to grab the ball, hoping to inbound and restart the game quickly with a five-on-four advantage. Ishbia resisted, and the ball popped away to some other fans a few feet away.
Jokic’s forearm then made contact with Ishbia, who, perhaps remembering his days as an end-of-the-bench player at Michigan State, seemed to sell the contact hard, throwing his hands in the air and falling into his seat.
Jokic was assessed a technical foul.
“Jokic came to get the ball, grabbed it away from the fan, then after that he deliberately gave him a shove and pushed him down, so he was issued an unsportsmanlike technical foul.” crew chief Tony Brothers said after the game.
Brothers said Jokic was not ejected because “he didn’t just run over and hit a fan. There was some engagement, so I deemed the technical foul the appropriate penalty.”
The Suns won the game, evening the best-of-seven series at two games all.
“The fan put a hand on me first,” Jokic said after the game. “I thought the league was supposed to protect us. Maybe I’m wrong.”
“He’s a fan. I know who he is, but he’s a fan isn’t he?” Jokic added. “He cannot influence the game by holding the ball.”
“I think it’s crazy that Nikola got a technical foul in that situation,” Coach Michael Malone of the Nuggets said. “He’s going to get the ball, and some fan is holding onto the ball like he wants to be a part of the game. Just give the ball up man.”
Told the fan was Ishbia, he said, “I really don’t care.”
“I didn’t even know what’s going on,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “I just saw a crowd over there, and I was worried about the next play.”
“He got us a point; he did his job,” Devin Booker of the Suns said of Ishbia with a smile.
The incident hardly slowed Jokic, whose 53 points came on 20 of 30 shooting. He had 11 assists as well.
Jokic won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2021 ands 2022 and was runner-up to Joel Embiid of the 76ers this season. But in his eight years with Denver the team has only one trip to the conference finals and has not made it to the N.B.A. finals. As the No. 1 seed this season, hopes are high in Denver that will change. Game 5 is Tuesday night in Denver, with Games 6 and 7 (if necessary) on Thursday and Sunday.