NEW YORK (AP) – It was late in the fourth quarter. The New York Knicks were losing badly. The Madison Square Garden crowd was cheering for the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony.

So by the time Denver’s J.R. Smith went in on another fast break Saturday, the Knicks had had enough.

Mardy Collins figured he’d put a stop to the fun with a hard foul. Instead, it was the start of a wild brawl – the last thing the NBA needed two years after its last melee, and the last thing the Knicks need in a season already spiraling downward.

The fight went from one end of the court to the other. Carmelo Anthony dropped Collins with a punch, Smith and Nate Robinson went flying into the stands while fighting, and six other players were ejected.

Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer, could be looking at a suspension of more than five games. The NBA was reviewing the incident and interviewing people involved Sunday. It could announce penalties Monday, since both teams play that night.

What caused the meltdown? It seems to come down to this: The Knicks felt dissed.

“The score period, and the guys that they had in,” Robinson said after the game. The Knicks (9-17) didn’t practice Sunday and weren’t commenting further.

Anthony, Camby, Smith and fellow starter Andre Miller were all still on the floor with Denver leading by 19 points with 1:15 to play when Collins prevented Smith from another easy basket by grabbing him by the neck and taking him to the floor.

Smith rose and immediately started jawing with Collins, and Robinson jumped in to pull Smith away. Anthony shoved Robinson away, and Robinson and Smith then tumbled into the front row while fighting.

Just as things appeared to be calming down, Anthony threw a hard punch that floored Collins, and New York’s Jared Jeffries sprinted from the baseline toward halfcourt in an effort to get at Anthony, but was tackled by a Denver player.

By the time security had finally contained Smith, they were nearly at the opposite end of the court from where the altercation started, making it the NBA’s scariest scene since the brawl at Auburn Hills, Mich., between Pacers players and Pistons fans two years ago.

“Without being there, I can tell you the power of emotions can be an underrated thing in our game,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “Something like this should not happen, and when it does, it’s disappointing. But unless you’re there and a part of it and know all the dynamics of it, it’s really hard to comment on it.”

Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, who took over for Larry Brown after one season, said he even told Anthony that he and Camby shouldn’t have been in the game at that point. A source in the league, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation into the brawl, said that Thomas also advised Anthony not to go near the basket shortly before the hard foul occurred.

Nuggets coach George Karl had just dispatched three players to the scorer’s table to check in while the Knicks brought the ball up the floor. But before play stopped so they could check in, New York turned it over, starting Smith’s fast break.

Two minutes earlier, Smith had thrown down a reverse dunk on the break, as both he and Anthony seemed trying to impress their group of fans. Smith is from New Jersey, and Anthony, who scored 23 points in the second half, is a New York native.

The Knicks weren’t enjoying the show.

Robinson said the Knicks were “just trying to fight, come back from the deficit and they got their star players still in. It’s a slap in the face to us as a franchise.”

One of many this year.

It’s been a miserable season for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where they have been routinely booed while compiling a 4-10 record. And they were in the midst of their second straight beating – Collins, in fact, committed a flagrant foul at the tail end of a 112-96 loss at Indiana on Friday night. The final score on Saturday was 123-100, Nuggets.

But while there is no excuse for their actions Saturday, nor is there any reason why Anthony should have had such a prominent role. Before the game, Karl was talking about his maturation as a player and a person, and Anthony was one of the captains of the U.S. team in the world championships.

The NBA has taken numerous steps to clean up its image after the fiasco in Detroit, implementing a dress code and its community relations initiative NBA Cares last season, and trying to eliminate excessive complaints to officials this season.

With Anthony appearing in marketing campaigns to promote the NBA, the league can’t have him participating in an incident that’s sure to trigger more discussions about all that is still wrong with its players.

One player involved in the Pacers-Pistons fight in 2004 said all the attention to a couple of brawls is overblown. “Listen, the NHL lets them fight. Fights happen in baseball. Fights happen in football,” Indiana forward Jermaine O’Neal said. “Why are we under scrutiny about our game?”

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