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Let’s All Agree That Nikola Jokic Shoving Mat Ishbia Was Good Fun

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 7: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets slightly stares at Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia before would Ishbia theatrically fall back into his seat after Suns player Josh Okogie (2) flew into the stands during the second quarter at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Sunday, May 7, 2023.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals was perhaps the most entertaining game of the playoffs so far. The score was close the whole way through and the game came down to the last few possessions; Devin Booker and Kevin Durant poured in shots with a truly startling rate of efficiency; Nikola Jokic scored 53 points in a losing effort, and also ... he shoved the Suns owner!

Late in the first half, Suns guard Josh Okogie went into the crowd while trying to chase down a loose ball. As soon as the referee signaled possession to the Nuggets, Jokic ran over to the corner to try and retrieve the ball. This is a thing he does all the time: Whenever he senses a chance to inbound the ball with an opponent behind the play, he does so as quickly as possible in order to try and manufacture a quick 5-on-4. Jokic ran into a problem this time, though, because Mat Ishbia, who ended up with the loose ball, refused to give it up.

Jokic was assessed a technical foul and the game went on without a hitch, but that didn't stop the incident from quickly became a subplot. The idea of Jokic possibly being suspended for Game 5 was first raised on the broadcast, and then amplified afterwards by various members of the NBA media. Perhaps sensing this possibility, Jokic and Nuggets head coach Mike Malone spoke about the shove in rather defensive tones. "I think it's crazy that Nikola got a technical foul in that situation," said Malone, before offering the best possible answer to a follow-up which informed him that the fan in question was Ishbia: "I don't give a shit."

"The fan put a hand on me first," said Jokic. "I thought the league is supposed to protect us or whatever, but maybe I'm wrong."

I can understand the impulse to turn this into a whole big thing. The echoes of NBA history bounce off a kerfuffle like this one, and it's hard to see this incident and not immediately think of the 2007 Suns' leaving-the-bench suspensions, the Malice at the Palace, and the handful of tense player-fan interactions from the past few seasons that have added a layer of anxiety to the in-arena experience. Add in the labor dynamics of a player and owner getting into it, and it's easy to project all sorts of meaning and portent onto Ishbia catching an elbow from Jokic.

But none of that really needs to happen, because what we have received in this instance is a beautiful gift: a spicy interaction between a player and an owner that was as funny as it was harmless. Yes, Ishbia held onto the ball too long, but he didn't lose his cool or get in Jokic's face about it. And yes, Jokic put an elbow into Ishbia's chest, but there was no real venom behind it and he calmly went back onto the court as soon as all the other fans started yelling at him.

Thanks to how both Isbhia and Jokic handled themselves—stepping right up to the edge of something, but going no further—we can just appreciate this moment for what it was. That's what I would urge all fans, media members, and members of the league office to spend their morning doing. Look at Ishbia standing there, in his funny little jacket that probably cost more than my paycheck, trying to be tough; look at the look of pure disdain that briefly washes over Jokic's face before dismissing the small man with an elbow; look at Ishbia try to sell it like he just took a superkick from a pro wrestler. For about 10 seconds, an intense NBA playoff game was interrupted by some cartoon slapstick, and I think that's just great.

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