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Monday, May 08, 2023

Big Performances by Booker and Durant Offset Jokic's 53 Point Game as Suns Win Game Four, Tie Series Versus Nuggets

It seems like a long time ago that Denver took a 2-0 lead versus Phoenix. Devin Booker (36 points on 14-18 field goal shooting) and Kevin Durant (36 points on 11-19 field goal shooting) led the way as the Suns beat the Nuggets 129-124 to tie the series at 2-2 and set up a critically important game five in Denver. The Suns' thin bench has been a problem since the Suns traded away several players to acquire Durant, so it seemed like the groin injury suffered by Chris Paul in game two that has forced him to miss games three and four would be a fatal blow--but without the aging Paul the Suns are pushing the ball up the court and creating easier scoring opportunities. Also, in game four Landry Shamet scored 19 points as the Nuggets unsuccessfully employed an "anyone but Booker or Durant" defense that intentionally left him open; that strategy failed because, as the above numbers show, the Nuggets not only failed to contain Booker and Durant but they enabled a third scorer to join the party.

Through the first nine games of a playoff season, few players have scored more points than Devin Booker has in the 2023 playoffs (331, 36.8 ppg), and no one who scored more than Booker had a higher field goal percentage than his .617. In the four games versus the Nuggets, Booker is averaging 36.3 ppg on .637 field goal shooting. It is fair to say that playing alongside Durant (who is averaging 32.0 ppg on .469 field goal shooting versus the Nuggets) has unleashed Booker's already potent offensive game. In the Suns' 121-114 game three win, Booker poured in 47 points while Durant added 39 points. Booker's 2023 playoff scoring is on a tier shared with only Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Michael Jordan.

The Nuggets wasted a great performance by Nikola Jokic, who scored 53 points on 20-30 field goal shooting while also passing for 11 assists. The only center who scored more points in a playoff game is Wilt Chamberlain, whose 56 points on March 22, 1962 set the NBA's single game playoff record that stood for less than a month before sublime forward Elgin Baylor scored 61 points in game five of the 1962 NBA Finals. Jokic is putting up his own historic numbers in this series, averaging 36.5 ppg on .570 field goal shooting while leading both teams in rebounding (14.0 rpg) and assists (9.5 apg). In game three, Jokic had 30 points, 17 rebounds, and 17 assists. 

Jamal Murray had 28 points and seven assists, but no other Nugget scored more than 11 points. Murray is having an excellent series (26.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 5.0 rpg), but the Nuggets need more consistent production from other players in order to counter the Booker-Durant pyrotechnics.

A bizarre play happened with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter and the Nuggets leading, 55-54. After the ball sailed out of bounds near the baseline, Phoenix owner Mat Ishbia refused to give the ball to Jokic. Jokic ripped the ball out of Ishbia's hands, and made light contact with Ishbia's chest, after which Ishbia flopped backwards as if he had been shot by a sniper. Meanwhile, another "fan" made contact with Jokic. The referees huddled together to sort things out, and decided to assess a technical foul against Jokic. The fan who made contact with Jokic was ejected, but Ishbia was not disciplined. After the game, Jokic mentioned that he thought that the NBA was supposed to protect players from the fans; Denver Coach Michael Malone made a similar point, noting that fans do not have a right to interfere in a game by holding on to the basketball and stating that this applies even if the fan is an NBA owner. 

The NBA office should rescind Jokic's technical foul, and--at the very least--publicly reprimand Ishbia while making clear what consequences will be dealt out if any fan (including an owner) engages in similar conduct. If the NBA office does not act, look forward to many other owners and courtside fans interfering in games: that free point matters in a close game, that technical foul moved Jokic one step closer to being ejected (and, if not rescinded, adds to a tally that could result in an automatic suspension if he accumulates more than seven technical fouls during the playoffs), and yet Ishbia has faced no consequences for blatantly interfering in the game. Also, I have no idea what the gambling line was for this game, but it is easy to see how an extra point could have a significant financial impact for anyone who bet on this game, which highlights the risk that the league has taken by entangling itself with gambling.

Regarding the game and the series overall, there is a tendency to overreact to each individual game as if there has been a major momentum shift. These teams are evenly matched, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses. I picked Denver to win in seven games, so I did not expect a Denver sweep after the Nuggets won the first two games at home and I do not expect the Suns to win out the rest of the way after winning their first two home games. It is normal for both teams to win games in playoff series, but in today's media world/social media world featuring hot takes that are a mile wide but only an inch deep people latch on to simple answers and biased narratives. Think about how crazy it is that three of the last four coaches who led teams to NBA titles (Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel, Nick Nurse) have been let go by the teams that they guided to the mountaintop; did all of those guys suddenly forget how to develop effective strategies and lead players? No, but we now live in a world that classifies every loss as a colossal failure for which blame must be assigned instead of as a step in a growth process. Many of the greatest coaches of all-time in a variety of sports took several years to win their first championship; in today's environment, would John Wooden, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Dean Smith, or Larry Brown have lasted long enough to put together their Hall of Fame resumes?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:02 AM



At Monday, May 08, 2023 3:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure why Jokic got a technical, unless he said something to a Phoenix player and/or an official. How do you get a technical engaging with fans? Either it's nothing or you're ejected. But he did lightly push Ishbia. If that is allowed, then NBA players will continue to push the line shoving fans in the future. What's the precedent for NBA players not getting suspensions or any sort after pushing a fan or something similar? The fan who pushed Jokic was weaker than Jokic's push of Ishbia. The NBA did protect him by ejecting that fan. But, is the NBA going to protect Ishbia from Jokic now?

I'm failing to see what consequences should happen to Ishbia. He was helping Okogie up, and held the ball for about a second after Jokic tried to grab the ball from him. First off, why does Jokic even need to be in the crowd at all? He shouldn't even be over there. It's not his job to get the ball. Okogie was still needing to get back onto the court, too. Ishbia shouldn't have held onto the ball that long, but he didn't even realize Jokic was there until Jokic was grabbing the ball from him.

It is odd that all these recent title-winning coaches have been fired so quickly. It's not a great look. But, I suppose nobody should get a free pass just because of what you did in the past. Though Budenholzer's 1st round loss this year is very likely the biggest flop in NBA history and he has a history of underachieving in the playoffs minus 2021. With the teams he's had, he should've made several more ECFs and Finals.

At Monday, May 08, 2023 3:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The referee who issued the technical foul to Jokic (Tony Brothers) specifically stated that it was for the unsportsmanlike act of pushing the fan, but that he (Brothers) did not eject Jokic because Jokic did not punch the fan and because the contact going on during the entire situation was clearly two-way and not just from Jokic.

In general (laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), in the real world, a civilian is entitled to reasonable self-defense. If I am walking down the street and you push me, I can push you to defend myself--but I can't beat you until you are unconscious. Here, Jokic was pushed, and he pushed back. I don't think that Jokic should have been punished.

Basketball is not baseball. At a baseball game, if the ball flies into the stands, any fan can keep the ball. At a basketball game, a fan who catches the ball should return the ball into play. Jokic has the right to retrieve the ball and inbound it as quickly as possible; preventing him from doing so is an inexcusable interference with the game. Any other fan who did what Ishbia did would have been ejected immediately, and probably banned. Realistically, the NBA is not going to eject and ban an owner for a first offense of this nature, but this must never happen again.

Regarding the coaches, I would not suggest that coaches should get a free pass, but it is odd for someone to achieve the pinnacle of success in a given field and then be out of work so quickly. I disagree that Milwaukee's first round loss is the biggest flop in NBA history. Giannis missed almost three games out of five, and Miami reached the ECF last season, so the Heat are hardly a typical eighth seed--and the Heat actually finished seventh, but fell to eighth due to the Play-In Tournament.

At Tuesday, May 09, 2023 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know the rule for technicals involving fans, but I guess officials can give them for engaging with fans.

I saw Jokic push Ishbia first. Then another fan in the 2nd row push Jokic after that, which is a reasonable reaction. Both pushes were incredibly minor and there's nothing to get worked up about, except we know what can happen sometimes when NBA players enter the crowd and nothing major is happening initially. The fans have a right to protect themselves, too. Jokic entered the crowd and the personal space of Ishbia. I understand the inbounding the ball quickly. But Jokic or any other player should not be allowed to walk into the crowd like that and then push a fan. Is there a rule that says Jokic has the right to go into the crowd like that? It's not his job to retrieve the ball either. Also, Okogie and/or the fan he landed on could've been injured. There's going to be a slight delay anyway to see if they're ok. I think it's a bit over-dramatic suggesting Ishbia should've been ejected and/or banned. Holding onto the ball for an extra second while checking to see if multiple people are ok is about as minor as it comes. Yes, he should've have done that, but that's extremely minor.

It is odd to fire these title-winning coaches. But, maybe makes sense for each of these organizations. Not too many head coaches couldn't have won at least 1 title in the past 5 seasons with the teams Budenholzer has had. What is a bigger flop then? I think no more than 10 #1 seeds have lost in the 1st round, if that, and I can't remember ever so easily. The Bucks were clearly the best team in the NBA during the regular season with arguably the best player with the best cast. This isn't like losing they're losing to another formidable opponent either later in the playoffs.

I disagree that Miami was that good. They only won 44 games in the regular season, barely squeaked into the playoffs, and lost 2 of their top 8-9 players during the series. Giannis missed 2 3/4 games, but the Bucks went 0-2 during the 2 full games he played. It is more than just Giannis not stepping up enough, though he does seem to get injured too much.

At Tuesday, May 09, 2023 5:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I saw Jokic attempt to retrieve the basketball to inbound it, and Ishbia refuse to give up the ball. Then, I saw Ishbia flop, and some other dude (who was later ejected) make contact with Jokic for no reason.

I have sat courtside a handful of times when I had a media credential. I don't specifically recall catching a ball that was in play, but if I had I would have immediately given the ball to the nearest player or referee. It would never have occurred to me to resist giving up the ball, and I would have assumed that doing so would result in my immediate ejection.

There is no such thing as a delay to see if someone is injured. A team can call a timeout or intentionally commit a foul to stop play. Otherwise, Jokic has every right to inbound the ball. In fact, instead of Denver having a 5 on 4 advantage the Suns received a technical free throw. Ishbia's interference affected the score of the game, and that is inexcusable.

How many different coaches have won championships in the past 15 years? It is easy to say that anyone could do it, but very few actually do it. Should every coach of a championship caliber team that does not win be fired? That would mean that every year four of the five best coaches would be fired, because only one team out of the five that realistically could win will win (some years there may be more or less than five, but generally there are around five teams that are good enough to win it all).

We agree that Miami was not particularly good during the regular season. They are clearly better now, and they are not playing like an ordinary eighth seed. They are beating the Knicks pretty easily, and the Knicks won in a mild upset over the fourth seeded team.


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