Lakers face a gut-check game

If you were hoping to tune in to Friday's Lakers-Nuggets tilt and see a rematch of last season's Western Conference finals, sorry to disappoint you.

Even though Los Angeles has the best record in the West (38-12) and Denver is its closest conference competition (33-16), Kobe Bryant will be playing hurt and Carmelo Anthony may not play at all.

Anthony has missed the Nuggets' last six games with a sprained left ankle and said he won't return to game action "until I'm 100 percent."

Bryant, who has suffered so many injuries this season he can't remember what 100 percent feels like, sprained his left ankle against Charlotte on Wednesday.

But Friday might still be a conference finals preview, and it shapes up as an important game for the Lakers as they near the All-Star break.

Not a "must win," but definitely a "we really, kind of, sort of, really should probably win."

The Lakers poured everything they had, physically and mentally, into their recent 14-day, eight-game road trip and still emerged with only a 5-3 record. Awaiting them back in L.A. were five more games before the All-Star break, all against teams that would make the postseason if the playoffs began today.

"I let them know about it before we were even off that road trip," Jackson said Thursday. "There's no easy games coming up now in this last segment before we reach the All-Star break."

Jackson wrote the names of the five teams -- Charlotte, Denver, Portland, San Antonio and Utah -- the Lakers would play on the white board in the visitors locker room in Memphis, the final stop of the road trip, followed by the message: "And then we breathe."

The Lakers exhaled a little bit after eking out a two-point win against the Bobcats in the first game of the stint Wednesday, but they can't breathe easy as they prepare to take the floor against the Nuggets on Friday night.

For one thing, it's the first night of a home/road back-to-back, the second game of which is Saturday in Portland, a place where the Lakers are winless in their past nine visits. Heading up to Portland with momentum seems crucial.

Two, the Nuggets already beat the Lakers this season. Actually, Denver thrashed L.A., winning 105-79 on Nov. 13 while holding the Lakers to 35.2 percent shooting from the field. L.A. was missing Pau Gasol that day, but that excuse goes out the window if the Lakers can't return the favor. If Anthony is out, the Lakers should win, and handily.

Three, the Nuggets know they can beat the Lakers. They did it twice in the playoffs last year and then this season. They're unafraid, and hungry for more, certain they can play with the defending world champions. A Lakers win Friday night could stem the Nuggets' rising tide of confidence.

"Our scout in charge of that game, [L.A. assistant coach] Frank Hamblen, says he thinks Denver feels that they're a better team than we are and they think that they've got our number, and they play like it," Jackson said. "We're going to have to be prepared for them in that regard. They're playing well enough to think that, too."

At Thursday's practice, Lamar Odom took a wait-and-see approach about how the Lakers would respond to the remaining four games before the break.

"It's a tough schedule, but we're well-prepared," Odom said. "When you get through these stretches, you find out what you're made of."

Meanwhile, Gasol, who could become the team's No. 1 option on Friday if Bryant's ankle limits him, said the upcoming stretch will benefit the Lakers no matter what the outcome.

"These things make us stronger," Gasol said. "We've got to prove now what kind of team we are if we want to be champions again."

There are nights on the calendar when you aren't at full strength. There are nights that measure you. There are nights when your star player is banged up and every member of the squad and the staff is bone-tired and dreaming of a break.

This is one of those nights. This is one of those nights when you hold your breath and ask yourself: How bad do you want it?

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Research from ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.