So far this season, it’s been Los Angeles that’s been unable to keep pace with the Nuggets.
Denver has blown out the Lakers in both meetings, and can lock up the season series against the defending champions Sunday afternoon with a second victory this month at Staples Center.
Los Angeles (44-15) won three of four in the 2008-09 regular season against the Nuggets before dispatching them in six hard-fought games in the Western finals, but Denver (39-19) seems to have figured out Kobe Bryant(notes) and company this season.
Bryant was held scoreless after halftime and the Lakers totaled 23 second-half points in a 105-79 loss at the Pepsi Center on Nov. 13 without Pau Gasol(notes), a defeat the reigning Finals MVP summed up succinctly.
“They beat the hell out of us,” Bryant said.
Gasol was back Feb. 5 at Staples Center, and had 17 points and 17 rebounds as the Nuggets played the seventh of eight consecutive games without Carmelo Anthony(notes). His absence made little difference - Chauncey Billups(notes) scored a career-high 39 points and J.R. Smith(notes) added 27 off the bench in a 126-113 win.
“We’re 2-0 against them in the season but that’s still the best team in the Western Conference, there’s no question about that,” said Billups. “They’re the world champs but we feel that we can compete with them, we just really feel that way.”
Bryant, who scored 33 points while playing on his sprained left ankle, was asked after Billups’ big game if he believes Denver thinks it’s the better team.
“I’m sure they do,” Bryant said. “They played extremely well the first two games this season and they have every right to feel that way.”
Billups has carried the offense during the Nuggets’ current three-game winning streak, averaging 29.3 points on 63.4 percent shooting. Billups scored 37 on Thursday in a 127-112 victory at Golden State, then had 25 one night later - 10 in the fourth quarter - as Denver battled fatigue to knock off visiting Detroit 107-102.
“I was looking for some energy and a little zip,” coach George Karl said. “But Chauncey really has a knack for finding a winning way in the fourth quarter and I thought we made some good stops down the stretch.”
Anthony has averaged just 16.0 points in his last six regular-season games versus Los Angeles, but Smith has compensated by averaging 21.2 points in the series’ past five contests.
They may both need to pick up the slack defensively Sunday if Kenyon Martin(notes) can’t go. Martin missed the win over Detroit with a left knee contusion - the same knee that caused him to miss two games prior to the All-Star break - and is questionable.
Denver has been outrebounded in five of the six games Martin has missed, a troubling sign with Gasol, Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes) to account for underneath. The Nuggets are 2-4 without Martin.
Gasol and Bynum each had double-doubles in the Lakers’ latest game, combining for 43 points and 24 boards in a 99-90 victory over Philadelphia on Friday.
Bryant had 19 points and eight assists in his third game back after taking five games to rest his ankle, but the Lakers were immediately looking ahead to Sunday’s showdown.
“That’s a game we have to win,” Bynum said, “because, obviously, they’re trying to show dominance over us.”
The teams meet for a final time April 8 in Denver.