The NBA sent a clear message with just a slap on the wrist for Jokic
“I like what ‘The Joker’ did,” Hall-of Famer Shaquille O’Neal said on Tuesday night, shortly before the NBA handed Nikola Jokic a one-game suspension for his role in an ugly fracas that marred an otherwise sterling effort for the Denver Nuggets in their easy, 113-96 victory Monday night.
Down 17 points with only 2:39 left in a one-sided affair that saw the visiting Miami Heat all but wave the white flag midway through the third quarter, Miami’s Markieff Morris strode across the court, taking three full steps before lowering his shoulder into Jokic’s ribs and initiating knee-to-knee contact in what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would have the comical audacity to call a “take foul” following the game.
It was not. It was no more than a pathetic cheap shot from a frustrated and defeated Heat team trying to send a message as if they were hockey’s “Broad Street Bullies” from 70’s Philadelphia — and the league’s MVP was having none of it. As Morris casually walked away, Jokic lowered his own shoulder and rammed into the back of the reserve forward from Miami, sending him sliding across the hardwood.
“It’s called retaliation,” O’Neal told his “Inside the NBA” broadcast partner Ernie Johnson on TNT. “First of all, when you hit me, don’t turn around. Don’t turn around. Because I’m swinging. Don’t turn around; you’re either going to take it from the front, or take it in the back. As a big guy, when a little guy hits you, you’ve got to touch him one back. I have no problem with ‘The Joker’ did. I actually like it as a big guy; you’ve got these guys fouling on you, hanging on you. (Morris) hit (Jokic); intentional, unnecessary roughness. So what do you do as a big guy? You go hit them back.”
“When you hit me, don’t turn your head, because it’s coming.”
Morris, despite laying on the ground for many minutes before a stretcher was summoned to the court, eventually walked off under his own power, and Spoelstra reiterated that his player was more or less fine following the altercation that he started, but that he would not be available for the Heat’s game against the Lakers on Wednesday. Morris was fined $50,000 by the league for his flagrant-2 fouls, and teammate Jimmy Butler received another $30,000 fine for escalating the situation and failing to comply with NBA security.
Unlike Morris or Spoelstra, Jokic — who had a 25-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple double — was contrite.
“It’s a stupid play. I feel bad. I am not supposed to react that way,” Jokic admitted after the game. “I thought it was going to be a ‘take foul.’ I think it was a dirty play, and I just needed to protect myself. I felt bad; I am not supposed to react that way, but I need to protect myself.”
“It was just in the moment,” Jokic added. “It’s reaction.”
The league obviously saw things similarly. Though the loss of a $372,000 game check is no small penalty for Jokic — who’s set to make $30.5 million this season — in reality, it’s little more than a slap on the wrist; a tacit understanding that it’s simply unrealistic to ask Jokic to ignore that kind of violent, physical threat.
“Erik Spoelstra’s just wrong,” fellow Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said, following up O’Neal’s justifications. “I’m watching all these fools on television all day talking about this. First of all, Morris started it. Let’s get that first. ‘Joker’ retaliated, and people say, ‘Well, he hit him in the back!” Let me tell you something, if you hit me, you better not turn your damn back — because I’m coming back at you. You can’t hit somebody and turn your back.”
Looking to his right at colleague Kenny Smith, Barkley continued. “Kenny is the most mild-mannered, nicest dude in the world. If somebody hit him?” Smith leapt in. “We’re swinging,” he said. “We’re swinging,” Barkley confirmed.
Though his colleagues (the Hall-of-Fame ones, at least) may have his back, Jokic got what amounts to a pass this time, and he needs to keep his cool going forward — especially after his ejection in the season-ending loss to Phoenix in June and with the events of Monday night, opponents know that they can get under his skin. He won’t be as lucky if anything happens again.
Then again, it’s quite possible it won’t. Morris runs 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds. And Jokic nearly launched him into orbit. The dual message’s been sent: The NBA doesn’t appreciate cheap shots on its MVP, and the MVP’s more than capable of taking care of business himself.
Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.