Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone thought Nuggets star Nikola Jokic only made "marginal" contact with Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne in earning a Flagrant 2 foul in the third quarter.
"He was making a play on the ball," Malone told reporters.
Michael Spencer @MichaelCBS4
Michael Malone was asked about the explanation he got from the officials.<br>"I think it was something along the lines of, 'wind up, malicious intent, some other mubo jumbo.'"#Nuggets #MileHighBasketball @CBSDenver <br>H/T @msinger for the question. pic.twitter.com/U7LqrLGnY4
Jokic was ejected when he attempted to wrest the ball from Payne and made contact across Payne's face.
While a flagrant foul became inevitable upon viewing the replay, some thought sending the 2020-21 MVP to the locker room was an extreme step:
The implications of his ejection likely played a role in the criticism. The Nuggets trailed by eight points at that time, and it became a nine-point game once both teams shot their free throws stemming from the incident.
Denver was down 3-0 in the series, so losing Jokic effectively extinguished any hopes of a comeback. Malone's squad attempted to rally with a 35-point fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough as the Suns sealed a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
No team in NBA history has come back after dropping the first three games of a seven-game series. The Portland Trail Blazers in 2003 were the most recent team to nearly pull it off, falling to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 in the first round.
The Nuggets' ultimate fate probably would've been the same if Jokic had received a Flagrant 1 foul instead. Perhaps they could've forced the Suns to close things out at home in Game 5, but Phoenix's first three wins underscored how it was simply a better team.