Lakers, Nuggets gear up for battle of West's best

A little bit of the luster is gone from Tuesday's game, but the importance and excitement is still there when the two best teams in the Western Conference face each other in an early-season matchup.

It's not the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors going at it but the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nuggets battling in Denver in what could hold plenty of meaning in April. The Lakers are 2 1/2 games ahead of the Nuggets in the race for the best record in the West, but have played three more games.

Before the weekend it looked like the teams would meet with a full head of steam. Los Angeles had won 10 in a row before dropping a home game to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. Denver was rolling, too, having won six straight and 10 of 11 before blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Sacramento on Saturday, eventually losing in overtime.

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The Lakers say they have already turned the page and are focused on the Nuggets.

"Each game is a new challenge," shooting guard Danny Green told reporters. "Denver is even tougher team. Can't take nothing away from Dallas. They are really good. But Denver is new challenge, a different challenge.

"They have been playing well in the West the last couple of years. They have many different threats, inside and out, so it's going to be a fun one and we look forward to scouting, looking at the film and figuring out what we need to do to obviously improve on ourselves, but also guard them and make them play to towards their weaknesses."

The Nuggets have won this season largely on the play of their defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the NBA (101.8 points allowed per game). But they also can get scoring from different areas. Five players are averaging double figures in scoring, led by guard Jamal Murray at 18.5 per game.

But the most dangerous player is center Nikola Jokic. He's a triple-double threat every night and has proven capable on the defensive end.

If there is one criticism of the Serbian big man is his he doesn't shoot enough. He averaged more than 17 shots a game for seven games before failing to reach 10 in two straight. He struggled Saturday, going 3 of 11 from the field and missed a critical free throw in the final minute of regulation that would have given Denver a three-point lead.

The Nuggets still finished November at 10-2 and put themselves in position to challenge for the top spot in the West. They also understand that they are getting everyone's best shot and their effort has to be there every night.

"Our guys understand that you can't think that we're just going to show up, look at a team's record and think, 'Well, on paper we're better than this team.' We have to go out and prove it every single night," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "The challenge is not to be satisfied and not get complacent and think we've arrived. Because we still have so much basketball to be played."

At the same time the players realize Tuesday's game is one of 82.

"It's another game, just got to come out ready to play," guard Gary Harris said. "We're going to guard our man, match up and attack them like we do every other opponent."

--Field Level Media

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