So we're down to the final two — not to mention the top two — Western Conference teams: the Lakers and Nuggets.
For Los Angeles, it's been a helter-skelter road back to the conference finals for the second consecutive year: a five-game opening series against Utah, then a seven-game semifinals scuffle with Houston that appeared to be more of a setback than a step forward. In the midst of it all, inconsistency and lack of urgency have become overwhelmingly synonymous with Purple and Gold.
For Denver, meanwhile, it's been a tale of two seasons: the AI era and the post-AI era. Thanks to the arrival of Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets went from straddling the lower portion of the conference standings to surging into second place by season's end. Show me the door suddenly became show me the money.
With that said, let's fire up three burning questions about this series, which begins on Tuesday at 6 pm PST:
1) Can the Lakers win the series if they continue their inconsistent and at times lackadaisical play?
Not a chance. Without Yao Ming for the final four games of this last series, the Rockets were a team running on fuel in the forms of passion and energy. As we all saw, they exhausted such fuel by Game 7. Not only do the Nuggets bring both of those components to the series but, more importantly, they are significantly more talented than Houston, with or without Yao. If the Lakers play like they did in games 1, 4 and 6, you can pencil in Denver as the Western Conference champions. It's going to take a 48-minute effort each and every game for the Lakers to find themselves in the championship round for the second time in as many years.
2) While the Lakers are the one-seed, many are touting the Nuggets as the favorite. Who is the favorite and who is the underdog?
Sure, the Lakers aren't playing up to their potential. Sure, they're doing what they need to do to get by. Sure, the Nuggets are well-rested and may be playing better basketball of late. But the Lakers have been here before. Although they may not show it, the Lakers understand the magnitude of this series. They have the home-court advantage — and that's enough for me to dub them the favorite.
3) Who wins?
The Lakers in 6. While the Nuggets are playing their best basketball of the season and the Lakers might be playing their worst, all it takes is an ounce of adversity — in other words, a second-round Game 7 — to wake a sleeping giant. This series will be Andrew Bynum's coming-out party (the 2009 version, at least) and the Lakers will dominate the paint on both ends of the floor. The Lakers will win their first three home games (Games 1, 2 and 5) and close out the series in Denver in Game 6 — yes, you read that correctly — for back-to-back Finals appearances.
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Written by Josh Hoffman