Scott Howard-Cooper
Monday May 18th, 2009

OVERVIEW: Lakers-Nuggets, Western Conference finals. Never a doubt.

Uh huh.

The matchup that was a good bet according to the seedings became quite another thing in reality, with uncertainty surrounding Denver in its first playoff run with this group and Los Angeles going out of its way to create doubt by phoning it in for long stretches or even entire games. No. 1 versus No. 2 ... and still it's hard to believe they're actually here.

Really going for surreal, the teams have switched roles. The Lakers are the head cases, loaded with possibility if they ever manage to get themselves under control. The Nuggets are the imposing team of the West, having taken apart the Hornets in the opening round and handled a challenge from the Mavericks in the semifinals with execution and an uncommon calm in close games. The Lakers, wobbling like playoff newbies. The Nuggets, collected. Follow the series via the usual sports outlets if you insist, but the best coverage will be in Psychology Today.

The Lakers won three of four meetings during the regular season. Of course, the Lakers also took four of four from the Rockets during the regular season, and look what that meant in the playoffs. Two interesting statistics from Denver-L.A. of the previous months, though: Kobe Bryant averaged 31 points and 47.8 percent shooting against the Nuggets compared with 26.6 points and 46.7 percent against the rest of the league, while Carmelo Anthony was at 14.5 points and 32.8 percent against the Lakers and 23.3 points and 45 percent against everybody else.

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THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. The Nuggets as a road team. They were just 21-20 away from Pepsi Center during the regular season, six games worse on the road than any of the other remaining championship hopefuls. An ordinary concern expands into a potential series-altering issue because Denver, for the first time in the playoffs, does not have home-court advantage. It went 2-2 on the road in the earlier rounds, splitting at New Orleans and then splitting at Dallas. Both visits to L.A. in the regular season ended in 14-point losses.

2. The Lakers' point guards. It was a particularly bad second round for Derek Fisher, who shot 30.8 percent with seven assists against five turnovers and couldn't stay in front of his man on defense. And that was against unproven second-year players Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry. Now Fisher gets one of the star point guards of the playoffs, Chauncey Billups. The Denver floor leader won't turn L.A.'s world upside down with speed the way Brooks did, but for big shots, for playoff experience, for leadership, no one at the position is doing more damage.

3. Andrew Bynum's impact. The Bynum of late in the regular season is a great lift for the Lakers. The Bynum of most of the first and second round is a letdown. The Bynum of Game 7 against the Rockets, a lift. If no one knows what to expect from the roster as a whole, the starting center for the moment is particularly unpredictable. The Lakers have the versatility to keep Bynum in the starting lineup or bench him again while moving Pau Gasol to center. They'd rather have their prodigy big man back to stay.

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X-FACTORS

• The Lakers and their focus: This is the Factor by any letter. The great intangible that followed them into the second round after the inconsistent showing against Utah now trails them into the third round as one of the storylines of the entire playoffs, with no real answer for why the team that stepped into the postseason as the title favorite has been so asleep at the wheel.

The Game 7 performance against the Rockets was an encouraging sign for a city that was able to finally exhale, but the 40-point victory of Game 5 was also an encouraging sign and that didn't last. The Lakers, unable to assert themselves, were pushed to the brink by the Houston smurfs. The same lack of focus against the Nuggets means defeat. The Lakers with constant energy means a spot in the Finals.

• The Nuggets must handle five days off as a lengthy break rather than a momentum-breaking layoff. Tuesday night at Staples Center will be interesting: the challenge of being on the road rolled into the test case of Denver as rested or rusted.

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UNDER THE RADAR: The Nuggets were 20th in the league in rebounding percentage during the regular season and especially weak on the defensive boards. The Lakers were sixth in percentage and especially successful on the offensive boards. For all the possibilities of a high-scoring series with glamour names -- Bryant, Anthony, Billups, Gasol -- the dirty work could be the tipping point.

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PREDICTION: Lakers in 7. The toughest call of the playoffs. The team with the most talent in the league against the team with the most consistency, the most energy and the most focus in the West. All the Lakers have to do to gain control of the series is play with heart. That's no sure thing, as anyone who has watched L.A. knows, but the Nuggets need to do better against Bryant, need to do better on the boards and need to do better on the road. Those are big steps even for a team playing so well.

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