NEW YORK -- About a minute or two before the Knicks-Nuggets brawl erupted Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, New York coach Isiah Thomas mentioned to Denver star Carmelo Anthony that it wouldn't be a good idea to go anywhere near the paint, according to a member of the Denver Nuggets organization.
The message was unmistakable: A hard foul was coming. And when it came, the NBA had its first full-scale fight of the 2006-07 season.
As it tries to stay in the race in the Western Conference, Denver now has a huge question to ponder: How long will Anthony be suspended? That's in addition to that other question they've been dealing with for a week: Is Allen Iverson coming aboard?
My first guess was that Anthony would be suspended for four games, a prediction I related to Denver coach George Karl after he reviewed a tape of the fight.
"I'll take the over," he said.
Anthony is likely to be penalized the hardest because he threw the punch everyone is going to see over and over again, a roundhouse right that decked Knicks rookie Mardy Collins -- the player who initiated the fracas with an egregiously hard flagrant foul against J.R. Smith on a breakaway with 1:15 remaining.
The Knicks were angry the Nuggets still had their starters in the game in the final two minutes despite a double-digit lead, including a 119-100 advantage when Collins committed his foul.
"They were sticking it to us pretty good, really giving it to us. J.R. had one dunk where he reversed and spun in the air, and Mardy didn't want to see that happen again in front of our fans," Thomas said.
Smith immediately jumped up and challenged Collins, and the fracas escalated when Knicks guard Nate Robinson ran into the fray. About 15 seconds after the initial foul, as players from both teams were clustered along the baseline just a few feet from Garden owner James Dolan's seat, Anthony threw what appeared to be a sucker punch at Collins, decking him.
Anthony backpedaled downcourt after the punch, with Jared Jeffries nearly coming out of his shirt as he tried to chase Anthony down, and various people tried to stop Jeffries. All 10 players who were on the court -- including all of Denver's starters except Nene -- were ejected.
"From what they did, keeping their guys on the court, I knew a foul was going to come. It was a good, clean, hard foul, and after that things went down from there," Robinson said. "I've never seen a team up 20 keep their starters in. They wanted to embarrass us, and it was a slap in the face to us as a team and a franchise."
Robinson is certain to draw a suspension for his part in escalating the brawl, and likewise Collins for the part his flagrant foul played. The league might come down hard on Thomas, too, if it finds him culpable for instigating the fracas by ordering a hard foul.
But the biggest penalty likely will go to Anthony, who began the night as the league's leading scorer and was just 75 seconds away from wrapping up a 2-3 road trip on a positive note.
Now, he might be out until Christmas, and he might even have Iverson as a teammate by the next time he plays, although Karl didn't sound too positive about that possible development, either.
"I spoke to [general manager] Mark [Warkentien] yesterday, and he said it seemed like it was dying down. I didn't even bother calling him today," Karl told me before heading out the locker room door for the flight back to Denver, facing an immediate future without Iverson or Anthony ... and sounding convinced things are going to stay that way for a while.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.