DENVER — It wasn't so much a hand to an opponent's face as a punch to his teammates' gut, a Rocky Mountain low that sucked any remaining hope from the already breathless Lakers.
Dwight Howard leveled Kenneth Faried midway through the third quarter Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, and it was the Lakers who eventually staggered off the court.
Sure, some will call the flagrant 2 foul an honest mistake for the easygoing, fun-loving Lakers center who actually stopped to pat an official on the rear before walking off the court after his ejection.
Other descriptors seem more fitting.
Needless. Foolish. Dangerous.
"I thought he went intentionally to endanger him," Denver Coach George Karl said. "Kenneth, it looked like he was pretty stunned after that."
Sadly, the play also might have represented the most energy Howard exerted during a listless 12-point performance in the Lakers' 126-114 defeat. He took only six shots in 27 minutes and reverted to his horrid form from earlier in the season at the free-throw line, making four of nine attempts.
Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni succinctly characterized Howard's value to his team in this particular game when asked what losing the six-time All-Star with more than 17 minutes left meant.
"Not a whole lot," D'Antoni said.
A dejected Howard sat in a corner of the locker room afterward, speaking in hushed tones about what he said was his first career ejection.
"It was a hard foul," he said. "That's all I know."
Was Howard worried about a possible suspension from the league office?
"My intention was not to hurt anybody," he said. "It was just a hard foul. I've been fouled hard and nothing has happened. You can't put me on a different scale because I'm a strong guy. A foul is a foul."
Faried suggested that Howard was mad because the Nuggets big man was constantly outrebounding his Lakers counterpart. He had a point.
The Nuggets pushed around Howard and everyone else in a Lakers uniform, generating 13 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points in the first half alone.
"I was getting in his head and he couldn't get the rebounds," said Faried, who finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds. "He wanted to, but I kept getting every rebound. It's not like I said anything or talked to him. I just play."
Howard seemed to be doing everything else.
He engaged in some first-quarter bickering with teammate Steve Nash after Denver's JaVale McGee slipped past both players into the paint for a dunk.
Said Howard: "He was just explaining what he thought happened."
Said Nash: "That kind of stuff should happen. You should be [angry] when the other team scores. It's healthy."
The Lakers had plenty to lament.
They mainly stood around for long stretches, even though they should have been more well-rested than the Nuggets. They arrived at their team hotel Tuesday night in time to watch the second half of Denver's late Christmas game against the Clippers at Staples Center.
They were still mostly spectators a day later.
Faried was so active he looked capable of playing one-on-five against the Lakers until Howard finally found a way to slow him down with 5:02 left in the third quarter.
After Faried took a bounce pass from Ty Lawson near the free-throw line and dribbled toward the basket, Faried's face was met by the massive left arm of Howard, which shoved him to the court.
Faried remained facedown for a few moments as officials reviewed the play, upgrading the severity of the foul from a flagrant 1 - to a flagrant 2.
"It's just a foul," Howard said. "I mean, I've been fouled harder than that before and nobody's ever got kicked out of the game before and I get penalized for fouling people hard. It's basketball."
What transpired here seemed like anything but for a team that seemed lost with or without its star center.