As 1-seed vs. 8-seed matchups go, this one is pretty unique. This 8-seed won 50 games and features not only two of the NBA's top five scorers but also the game's best shot-blocker. On offense, Denver resembles last year's No. 8 darling, Golden State, but the Nuggets are capable of playing better defense.
The Lakers earned the West's top seed in what may go down as the best conference race in NBA history. Consider this: Last season, the 8-seed Warriors beat the Mavericks, a No. 1 seed that had 25 more regular-season wins than Golden State. This year, the Lakers have just seven more wins than Denver. And although the Lakers swept the season series 3-0, all three games were played before Jan. 22; since then, each team is playing much differently (and better).
Both teams love to run and push, with L.A. playing at the sixth-fastest pace and Denver setting the pace as the fastest team (just as Golden State did last season). Each team defends well -- Denver is ninth in defensive efficiency and the Lakers are sixth. L.A. is a much more finely tuned offensive machine -- third-best in the league, while Denver is 11th. Not bad, but that will have to be better to upset the Lakers.
Denver will come out flying from the opening tip, racing up the floor and looking for Carmelo Anthony inside. He's a small forward in name only -- Anthony is a punishing scorer in the paint, using both brute force and terrific technique to get buckets. So L.A.'s big men must race back to cover the rim, allowing their guards to find and cover Denver's shooters. If that happens, it's up to A.I. and Melo to create scoring chances.
But for Denver to have a chance in this series, they need Marcus Camby to slow Pau Gasol on offense. Kobe will be unguardable, and he'll create shots for his perimeter teammates. But if Gasol can have his way inside as a post option in the triangle, Denver will be hard-pressed to stop him and also defend an offensive juggernaut like Kobe.
Carter: He may start at PG, but it is doubtful that he'll get much run in this series. He's a capable shooter and passer, but he's limited on defense. Really, he just needs to get the ball to Melo and A.I. and not turn the ball over much.
Fisher: He had his best offensive season in years, capably running the Lakers' offense while taking good shots when there was an opening. He was very offensive-minded in L.A.'s games against Denver, scoring 19 points per game on 60 percent shooting and 75 percent from 3. He shot consistently well all season from deep (40.6 percent) and has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6-to-1). Importantly, he'll spend lots of time chasing and defending Iverson so Kobe can get some rest. Fisher will fight to stay in front of A.I., failing sometimes surely, but will contest many of his midrange shots by using excellent timing on his jump.
Iverson: Despite Melo's recent arrest, Iverson raises the biggest questions heading into the series. He had another excellent season as a scorer and playmaker, though he did log a league-leading 41.8 minutes per game. And he was, by far, Denver's best player against L.A. this season, averaging 7 assists and 30 points on 50 percent shooting. But Iverson reverted to his old self in last year's postseason loss to the Spurs, forcing up too many tough jumpers and runners. A more restrained A.I. would help Denver's offensive attack. He'll check Derek Fisher on defense, but Fisher's reliable ballhandling makes it tough on A.I. to make defensive plays.
Bryant: Get ready to hear lots of "MVP" chants in this series. Denver has no player to match up with an engaged Kobe, who torched them with 56.8 percent shooting in their three games -- his highest field-goal percentage against any Western opponent. In April, he averaged a season-low monthly total of 26.1 and took more 3s than any other month, a sign that he should be well-rested ... rested and hot, as he hit 45.7 percent of those 3s, the only month when he shot better than 40 percent. He can rest while defending Anthony Carter, but not against J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza or, of course, A.I. or Melo. Kobe typically raises his defensive effort to suffocating levels in the fourth quarter of close games, and he can do that to any of those guys, save Melo. Kobe's assist ratios were up a tic from the past few seasons, and Gasol is the best offensive player he's played with since Shaq, so we might not see him get into his high-scoring mode unless (or until) Denver can slow some of the other Lakers players.
Anthony: One of the most devastating offensive machines in the NBA. Capable of putting up huge numbers against any player and from almost anywhere in the half court. Also a devastating player in Denver's transition game, filling lanes or taking a position at the rim as the lead post in Denver's early offense. The Lakers need to account for him at all times, which they've done reasonably well this season (just 20 ppg in three games). He won't have to work hard in defending Luke Walton, but will need to be aware of rotation responsibilities in dealing with the Lakers' terrific ball movement.
Radmanovic: An important part of the strong Lakers offense, he's an efficient scorer and an underrated passer. Enjoyed his best month of the season in April, averaging 10 points and hitting 40 percent of his 3s. His size allows him to get shots off from the perimeter without getting them contested often on catch-and-shoot situations, and no Western team gave up more points to him than Denver (13.5 ppg in two games, hitting 6-of-13 from 3). The Nuggets' guards are just too small to bother him on closeouts. When he's on, the entire Lakers offense jumps up a notch. Unfortunately, his size will be no help to him on the defensive end, as Melo will use his superior quickness and strength to score on him in a myriad of ways.
Martin: Had a nice comeback year and is a solid player on both ends. Still gets lots of dunks (23 percent of his field goal attempts) but takes too many perimeter jumpers for such a below-average shooter. Has struggled to score against the Lakers, getting only 24 points in three games, and his production has dropped significantly in April. He might be wearing down following his microfracture surgery last season. Defending Lamar Odom, and keeping him off the glass, will be tough to do. Martin will be thrilled to be able to play in this postseason, so we should see him intense and battle-ready.
Odom: Another unsung hero on this team; Odom learned to be more efficient as a shooter and scorer by cutting down his 3-point attempts. He only took 1.5 3s per game this season (3.3 last season). And in April, when Odom enjoyed his best scoring month (16.1 ppg on 63 percent shooting), he attempted only three 3-pointers; the Lakers went 7-1 in those games. Not only that, his rebounds are up (10.6) and his turnovers are down (2.0). It appears Odom has found his niche as a solid, versatile wing slasher and post scorer. He'll need his terrific length to counter K-Mart's superior quickness and high-energy motor on Denver's offensive end. And Odom's ball skills off the bounce will allow him to serve as a good pressure-release man if the Nuggets get into a trapping game.
Camby: The 34-year-old Camby recorded a career-best 13.1 boards per game, but his offense fell off considerably (a career-low 10.4 ppg per 40 minutes). His matchup against Gasol should be one of the better battles in Round 1 leaguewide, and Camby is loaded with pride on that end of the floor. His 3.6 blocks per game led the league by a wide margin, and it's not just Gasol who has to worry about him inside -- it's any Laker shooting from the paint. He likes to hang back when his man sets a ball screen, leaving jump shooters open.
Gasol: No player in these playoffs can be happier about their position than Gasol. Like T-Mac and KG, Gasol has known the bitterness of playoff defeats all too well. But with a record of 22-5 since he started playing in L.A., his passion for playing and winning is back for all to see. Interestingly, he has not played a game against Denver, so like two boxers feeling each other out in Round 1, he and Camby will do a similar dance. Like a lot of his teammates, Gasol comes into the playoffs rolling (18.8 ppg on 61 percent shooting). He's already adept at posting, screening and passing within the triangle, and he is very comfortable carrying the scoring load when Kobe is resting. He's also an underrated defender, blocking 1.5 shots per game while rarely fouling anyone.
One of two scoring machines that coach George Karl can bring off the bench to help get points or bring energy. Kleiza's 3-point shooting was not as good this season as last season, but he had some big scoring nights, including a 41-point effort. Extremely tough player who excels in transition and can defend -- may even see some minutes versus Kobe. Excellent in the transition game, as well.
Karl's other X factor from the bench, Smith enjoyed a mini-breakout year by improving in almost every category. Like Kleiza, he can score in huge bunches off drives, sprints or pure shooting from deep. He's Denver's most reliable 3-point shooter (40.3 percent). Smith can be a game-changer with his perimeter shooting, and he must remember Karl losing faith in him last April. He should be ready to make amends.
Another tough-nosed and energetic player, with an improved 3-point shot. Najera makes a lot of little things happen that lead to big things for Denver. But he was never a factor in the games against L.A. this season.
Heady veteran who dealt with injuries all season. Similar to Carter, gets them into their offense and tries to limit mistakes.
One of the NBA's most improved players. Solid from 3 (37.1 percent) and a good on-ball defender. Has the athleticism to hang with Denver's jets, as well. Excellent finisher around the basket.
Still a great passer and an improved rebounder, but struggled this year as a shooter. Tough for him to defend Anthony or K-Mart, but at least he hit 5-of-10 3s in April to give him some confidence going into the series.
Big man who brings lots of energy and passion into each game, but he's got talent, too. Steady as a rebounder and knows where to move on defense -- he'll be key in helping slow Denver's slashers.
Another Laker who greatly improved this season, and the best deep shooter on this team (43.7 percent from 3). He's also a pest on defense (and to the referees) with his hustle and quickness. He's capable of helping to somewhat neutralize Denver's strong bench scoring with some of his own (averaged 11 ppg in just 16 minutes in their three games).
David Thorpe: Denver is a dangerous team, and just a year ago almost stole both games in San Antonio to start the series. They are happy to be playing anyone but the Spurs, who have wiped them out in consecutive playoffs. The Lakers are peaking, deep and balanced on both ends of the floor. These teams are fairly evenly matched, but one is better built to win four of seven.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers 4, Denver 2
Mike Moreau: The Nuggets have been unpredictable all season, but that does not minimize how dangerous they can be. They may drive their fans crazy, but they'll give the Lakers all they can handle.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers 4, Denver 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the Director of Basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, FL. He also serves an NBA Analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.