War of words getting more personal

Updated: May 1, 2004, 12:32 AM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Since the days of Cain and Abel, big brothers and little brothers often haven't seen eye-to-eye. More often than not, it's the little brother who starts it. But if big brother opts to entertain his little brother's foolishness with retaliation, mama usually will look at the eldest first and say, "You should know better."

In the big brother-little brother series between Western Conference top seed Minnesota Timberwolves and No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets, the Nuggets started it more often, but the Timberwolves should have known better.

The Wolves clinched their first-ever playoff series win with a fourth victory over the Nuggets in Friday night's Game 5 at the Target Center. But through this entertaining, trash-talking and physically threatening series, a lot of words, glares and low blows, literally, were exchanged. And now the Wolves may realize they wasted a lot of energy for nothing.

It all started so innocently. Wolves center Ervin Johnson had a playful, trash-talking affair going on with Nuggets forward Chris Andersen by saying Andersen wouldn't dunk on him and there would be a hard foul if he did. "The Bird Man" said he wasn't scared and was ready to fly over Johnson.

Nuggets rookie center Francisco Elson, who began the series in solid fashion to the Wolves' surprise, engaged in some trash-talking with his Minnesota foes. The Wolves took exception to Elson's slow trot back to the defensive end after hitting some jumpers. Minnesota's Kevin Garnett was also irritating the Nuggets by goal-tending their field-goal attempts that didn't count after a referee blew a whistle.

And before Game 3 in Denver, with the Nuggets down 2-0, Wolves guard Latrell Sprewell came into the Nuggets' locker room and began playfully trash-talking with the Nuggets' Marcus Camby, his former Knicks teammate and close friend. Camby predicted to Sprewell that the Nuggets would win Game 3, which they did.

Kevin Garnett and Francisco Elson
Kevin Garnett and Francisco Elson have had run-ins on and off the court.
The series took a turn for the worse early in the fourth quarter of Game 3. With 8:50 left in the fourth quarter and Denver running away with a 91-68 lead, the ball ended up going out of bounds toward the Nuggets' bench and landed in the hands of rookie forward Carmelo Anthony. After Anthony faked a jump shot, Garnett went to the sideline and tried to grab the ball from Anthony's hands. Anthony snatched it back and then tossed it to the referee. Garnett followed with some words to the Nuggets' bench. With the Pepsi Center crowd in an uproar, Nuggets guard Andre Miller followed by lightly pushing Garnett, who is nine inches taller. Miller also received a technical foul.

"You can't have other players coming to the bench," Miller said. "That's it."

Said Garnett: "It's part of the game. You go in some 'hood right now on the blacktop it would be worse than that."

Garnett also wasn't too happy with Elson from previous games, especially one instance in which Elson gave Garnett a hard foul on the head. Long after Game 3 was over, Camby chatted with Sprewell and Wolves center Oliver Miller outside the Minnesota team bus. When Elson stopped by, several eyewitnesses said Garnett came off the bus and approached Elson. Garnett confronted Elson with the words, "You got words?" The two began having words. But nothing physical ensued and Minnesota coach Flip Saunders ended the whole incident by getting KG back on the bus. From then on, things really got heated.

Between Game 3 and 4, the tongues were wagging -- mostly by the Nuggets, whose confidence rose dramatically from their lopsided Game 3 win.

"I think the pressure just mounts, continues to mount," said Nuggets guard Jon Barry, about the Wolves' past of not advancing past the first round in seven years. "Doubt might creep into their minds, 'Hey, are we going to do this again?' You lose seven times in the first round in a row, you've got to be thinking about it."

Said Camby: "By us winning, it would put more pressure on those guys because they haven't been out of the first round, and they would have to hear all the talk about not getting out of the first round with the media. If we can win this game, it would be a big game for us mentally."

Before Game 4, Wolves guard Sam Cassell talked about the Nuggets awaking a sleeping giant. During the first quarter, Garnett became upset after Elson hit him in the hip. Garnett retaliated by hitting Elson in the groin with 2:55 left in the first quarter. The Nuggets actually made a video copy of Garnett's play and sent it to the NBA, although no punishment is expected.

As the Nuggets played well early on, they began showing their personality in showboating fashion. Andersen began patting his newly permed hair after one dunk. Barry flexed his muscles after a made jumper. And the Wolves slowly began to seethe.

The Wolves finished the nip-and tuck game with an 84-82 triumph after missed shots by Denver's Miller and Voshon Lenard. Once the buzzer sounded, the top seed didn't just walk off the floor in veteran fashion to the locker room. Instead, they celebrated as if the series was over.

Garnett tossed the ball across the court and well into the stands. Cassell jumped on the scorer's table. Sprewell began trash-talking to the dejected Nuggets and got into a 1-on-1 verbal match with Barry. The Wolves ran over to the Nuggets' side of the court to join Sprewell and stood ground like a gang fight was about to ensue. One Nuggets official said a Wolves player even bumped one of the Nuggets' assistants.

The Pepsi Center crowd went from disappointed to dangerous by hurling stuff onto the Wolves as they walked off the floor.

"It was a big win for us," Sprewell said. "It's a difference in the series being 3-1 or tied 2-2. So, that was a huge game."

On Wednesday, the day after Game 4, the little-brother Nuggets' feelings were still hurt.

Elson, still steaming from getting hit below the belt by Garnett, said: "That's a cheap shot by a low-class type player. You don't do that. That's gay on his part. I told him that he was gay, too, for touching me in my private parts." Elson made national headlines with those words and issued an apology to the gay community and to NBA commissioner David Stern the next day.

They're a No. 1 seed and they're acting like little kids. So it's personal right now, very personal on my part, too.
Nuggets center Francisco Elson

Elson also added: "They're a No. 1 seed and they're acting like little kids. So it's personal right now, very personal on my part, too."

Said Barry: "I just think it was kind of funny that the No. 1 seed was acting like they've won the championship."

With a laugh, Anthony said: "They might have to bring a lot of extra security to (Friday's) game. There'll be some punches thrown."

With Wednesday's day off, the Wolves weren't available for comment. And once the Wolves returned to practice on Thursday, it seemed as if they were done talking. Garnett didn't respond to Elson's "gay" comments and said the team had decided to turn the other cheek on the trash talk. The focus seemed to be just on the game. The West's No. 1 seed, which averages 30.5 years in age, seemed to finally be focused on being the No. 1 seed and not the No. 8 seed, which averages 26.5 years in age. Well, that was until Oliver Miller got to talking.

As he was walking by the media following Thursday's practice, Miller said: "I don't want to touch somebody because I might be gay."

And before Sprewell addressed the media, Miller added: "Spree, don't touch no men. They might think you're gay."

There it was, big brother reacting to little brother yet again instead of just brushing him off his shoulder.

Now, the Wolves move on from this series and have something much bigger to deal with. Someone that won't engage them in such foolishness. Someone that has been where they are going and further. Someone as hungry that wants what they want and realistically can fight for it, too.

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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