DENVER -- One cheap shot can change everything. The mojo in this NBA playoff series turned decidedly back in the favor of the Denver Nuggets when Golden State center Andrew Bogut turned into a coward and went for the throat of Kenneth Faried.
Any guise of good sportsmanship is gone. This is a brawl. Oh, it's on now.
Golden State coach Mark Jackson accused the Nuggets of being "hit men." Faried countered by alleging Bogut has repeatedly hit him in the throat.
Denver did more than beat Golden State 107-100 on Tuesday night to stave off an unwanted start to summer vacation.
When Bogut lost his head, taking a cheap shot at Faried, it was the first sign Denver had wormed its way into the heads of the Warriors.
"He just hit me, and I was shocked," Faried said. "But I was happy about it."
Bogut cracked. And there is a crack in the door for the Nuggets to beat the odds, show Golden State who's boss and make an unlikely comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win the opening-round series.
Until that moment of Bogut's stupidity, everything the feisty No. 6 Western Conference seed had done, from Stephen Curry's shooting to Jackson's coaching, had been golden.
Then it all changed, when Bogut made a move as yellow as those T-shirts that Golden State hands out to fans in its home arena.
"We got tangled up there," claimed Bogut, while icing his left ankle in the visitors dressing room.
I'm no district attorney, but if Bogut had offered any weaker defense, he would have been laughed off the witness stand.
With 8 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Wilson Chandler launched a long jump shot that bounced off the rim. As Faried tracked the rebound, Bogut saw it as an opportunity to shove a defenseless opponent with both hands and knock him down.
Bogut struck Faried in the throat. It was as low a blow as can be thrown above the belt.
"I was trying to box him out," Bogut insisted.
I'm not sure how James Naismith taught rebounding, but I'm pretty certain it was before the flagrant foul was invented for guys like Bogut.
"He pushed me because he was mad. . He knew I was going to get the rebound," Faried said. "He's been hitting me in the throat all along in the series." With one act of stupid frustration, Bogut revealed himself to be less than a man worthy of respect.
For the first time in the series, Nuggets coach George Karl made an inspired coaching decision. Denver opened with a lineup of Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala in the backcourt, and Faried, Wilson Chandler and JaVale McGee giving real muscle in the paint. Size mattered. The Warriors backed down, and the home team built a 14-point lead in the opening period.
"They tried to send hit men on (Curry)," said Jackson, insisting a hard Denver screen on his leading scorer was deliberately targeted at a gimpy ankle. "It can't be debated."
As the Warriors helplessly watched Game 5 slip away, Jackson sat in the huddle and preached to his players: "If we force them to play on our terms, we'll run them out of here."
But Jackson could see the truth, and did not like the look of it. The cruel beauty of a seven-game series is the math has time to adjust and punish underdogs with more bark than bite. The most difficult thing to do for the inferior team is to close it out, before doubt creeps in. A stranger has taken a seat next to injured David Lee on the Warriors' bench: Hello, doubt.
Give Golden State credit. After falling behind by as many as 22 points shortly after halftime, the Warriors cut Denver's lead to 100-95 late in the fourth quarter. The anxiety of a Denver crowd emotionally battered by a long history of opening-round flameouts was palpable. But the Nuggets held firm in the clutch with the veteran poise of Iguodala, who finished with 25 points.
They are Warriors?
No more. Thanks to Bogut, they look like wannabe thugs.
After a loss in Game 4 at Golden State, Faried was so frustrated he kicked a hole in the locker room wall.
"They can bill me," Faried said.
He'll be back, for Game 6, with the pressure on Golden State. This time, Faried and the Nuggets are looking to kick tail.
The mind-set the Nuggets will take into this fight?
"We ain't leaving here," Faried said, "until we've won."