MVP Nikola Jokic ejected, Suns sweep Nuggets 125-118
By ARNIE STAPLETON
DENVER (AP) The Phoenix Suns roared into the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 11 years Sunday night with a testy 125-118 victory over Denver that completed a four-game sweep.
The Nuggets? Well, they went down fighting.
Chris Paul scored 37 points and Devin Booker added 34 in a physical game marred by MVP Nikola Jokic's ejection for a flagrant foul in the third quarter.
Jokic was tossed with 3:52 left in the third quarter and his Nuggets trailing 83-76 after his hard right-hand windmill swipe sent the ball flying but also caught Cameron Payne in the face.
Jokic said he meant only to commit a hard foul on Payne.
"I didn't want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose," he said.
Booker took umbrage at the hard foul and got in the big man's face before teammates and coaches pulled everyone apart.
Officials assessed a double technical on Jokic and Booker and ejected the MVP after upping the call to a Flagrant 2. Jokic finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
The Nuggets and their fans at Ball Arena were frustrated that they were getting called for ticky-tack fouls yet Jokic wasn't getting the calls expected of a Most Valuable Player.
"Before they had determined their decision on the Flagrant 2, I had watched a replay myself on one of the coaches' computers behind the bench and I just assumed it would be a Flagrant 1 at the worst," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
"From my vantage point in watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent. I think it was a frustration. Nikola probably felt the last couple of plays when he had the ball he had no received a foul call and he went over there to take a foul, which he's done plenty of times before. A lot of players do that.
"I didn't feel like it warranted a Flagrant 2 ejection because he's making a play on the ball," 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."
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."
With their franchise-record seventh straight playoff victory, the Suns advanced to the conference championship for the first time since 2010 - the last time they even reached the playoffs.
After knocking out LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers in Round 1, the Suns quickly dispatched Denver and made Jokic the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since Magic Johnson in 1989.
Will Barton led Denver, which trailed by 13 heading into the fourth quarter, with 25 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 20 and Monte Morris 19.
The Nuggets survived the loss of star Jamal Murray to a torn ACL on April 12, winning 13 of 18 to close out the regular season and taking care of the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in the opening round.
But when second scoring option Porter tweaked his surgically repaired back in the first half of Game 1 against Phoenix, it was one injury too far for the Nuggets to overcome.
Denver coach Michael Malone said before tip-off that the Nuggets couldn't really rely on their experience from the bubble in overcoming a pair of 3-1 deficits in the playoffs last year. For one thing, Murray's recovering from knee surgery.
Malone said the Nuggets' only focus was on sending this series back to Phoenix for a Game 5.
Instead, Jokic became the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since the Pistons downed Magic Johnson and the Lakers in four in the NBA Finals in 1989.
Jokic's ejection came 48 hours after an emotional celebration before Game 3 in which the Serbian dedicated his MVP trophy to his teammates, coaches, trainers and the front office.
The only NBA player to play all 72 games this season, Jokic spent the fourth quarter in his locker room as his teammates' comeback without him fell short.
Despite the sweep and Jokic's early exit, fans chanted, "MVP! MVP" as they streamed out of the arena.
Suns: Phoenix trailed just once at 2-0 before Booker's 3-pointer put the Suns up for good. ... Paul shot 14 of 19 from the floor and made all nine of his free throws.
Nuggets: Murray shot one-footed jumpers before the game and drew a loud ovation when he drained one from halfcourt as he walked off. ... Malone shook up his stagnant starting lineup, sitting Facundo Compazzo and Austin Rivers for Morris and Barton.
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Updated June 14, 2021