Mark Jackson might have been overstating things a bit when he used the terms "hit men" and "dirty plays" to describe the tactics the Denver Nuggets employed against Stephen Curry in Game 5, but the Golden State Warriors' outspoken coach knew what he was doing.
And he wasn't completely off-base, either.
The Nuggets were facing elimination in Game 5 and were clearly sick of Curry's spot-on impression of the Human Torch. After a shaky Game 1, Curry erupted for 90 total points during Games 2, 3 and 4—all Warriors wins. Game 4, in particular, displayed just how unstoppable Curry could be when given even the tiniest sliver of space in which to operate.
Denver had tried trapping Curry with limited success. It had also auditioned a number of defenders, giving everyone from Andre Miller (massive failure) to Andre Iguodala (the best option) an opportunity to stick with the sharpshooting guard.
In short, nothing worked.
So, having exhausted their legal options, the Nuggets decided to do what NBA playoff teams have done to opposing superstars for decades: They got physical.
Now, there are a couple of additional factors that take what the Nuggets did to Curry in Game 5 from "aggressive" to "borderline dirty."
First, Curry's injury issues make him uniquely vulnerable to physical play. His surgically repaired right ankle held up well this year, but his recently sprained left one has clearly bothered him throughout the series.
Denver is obviously aware of Curry's ankle troubles, and some players have clearly made it a point to target that particular area of his body.
Jackson's very best evidence that Denver's strategy contains a few unseemly elements occurred on a first-quarter interaction between Curry and Kenneth Faried. As Curry jogged down the lane, probably preparing to curl up off of a pindown screen, Faried edged to his right and gave Curry a little nudge.
Those sorts of just-letting-you-know-I'm-here plays are commonplace in the NBA. Faried and countless others like him are always sending small messages to guards when they venture into the lane, even without the ball.
But what made Faried's play the best example of Denver's unsportsmanlike strategy was the way he clearly stuck his right foot out to trip Curry.
Everyone can fixate on Kosta Koufos' post-whistle contact with Curry's face or the handful of hard screens Curry absorbed in Game 5, but that one little slide step by Faried gives Jackson's accusations all the credence they need.
Hard fouls and physical play are one thing, but a concerted effort to target a pre-existing injury is quite another. Denver was guilty of the latter—at least on that one particular play—in Game 5.
But the Warriors aren't without blame either, as they've been toeing the line between aggression and dirty play all series, too.
Denver Nuggets @nuggets
Center @JaVale McGee on Mark Jackson accusing #Nuggets of playing dirty: "If we played dirty, they must've played unsanitary."2013-5-1 03:49:18
Andrew Bogut has been pummeling Faried inside, dishing out forearms, elbows and the occasional shove to the face whenever he's had an opportunity. Jackson can be as indignant as he wants about Curry's treatment, but the fact that his own team is engaging in that same physicality takes away some of his righteousness.
And if we step back a moment, isn't Jackson just doing what any smart coach would in his situation?
Phil Jackson was a master of priming the officials after a loss. Jackson's complaints, and the video evidence supporting them, will certainly have some impact on the way the referees police the action in Game 6. By making a stink and using some choice words, he has made the Nuggets' tactics a national story.
The extra attention on the next game's physicality can only be an advantage for the Warriors, who thrive when given space and employ a style that depends heavily on finesse. He's making a shrewd move by seizing this opportunity.
At the same time, Jackson's comments show his players that he's always going to support them. Anyone following the Warriors this year knows that every player on the roster has gushed over Jackson's attitude. He's already got their loyalty, and when he does things like this, there's no mystery as to why.
Ultimately, Jackson is almost certainly correct that the Nuggets have been targeting Curry. But at the same time, Denver is facing elimination, and it can't be all that surprising that it has resorted to some less-than-legal tactics to stay alive.
Game 6 should be a slightly cleaner affair, even if it requires a couple of early technical fouls or ejections to establish the law-abiding tone that the officials will surely have been instructed by the league to enforce.
Jackson's complaints have probably given the Warriors a small edge, and in the playoffs, that can make all the difference.