Kobe Bryant knew this would happen. No, really.
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant knew this would happen. No, really.
After the Denver Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers back in February, he found Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony on the court and offered a prediction.
"I told 'Melo, 'I'll see you in the Western Conference finals,' " Bryant said. "I just felt they had all the pieces there, they had the depth, they had the toughness, they had the camaraderie. It's no surprise to me that they're here."
There's always the chance Bryant said the same thing to Brandon Roy or Tim Duncan, but Denver and Anthony should be thrilled to even be mentioned in the same sentence as the West finals.
The Nuggets haven't been this far since 1985, but it's true, their first game against the Lakers in the best-of-seven conference finals is Tuesday at Staples Center.
The series hasn't even started, but the comparisons to the Lakers' four-game sweep of the Nuggets in last season's playoffs have already been studied and discarded.
In one sentence: Chauncey Billups wasn't there, Nene was barely present because of a strained groin, and Anthony hadn't evolved into a leader in addition to being one of the game's top scorers.
The Lakers have won 10 of their last 11 against the Nuggets and held Anthony to 14.5 points a game and 32.8 percent shooting while going 3-1 against Denver this season, but the two-time All-Star is averaging 27 points so far in the playoffs.
"The way he's playing now, he's playing exceptionally well," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "We just can't let him sit on shots when he gets hot."
The Lakers weren't so blistering in the West semifinals against Houston, needing seven games to advance even though Yao Ming was lost for the series after sustaining a broken foot in Game 3.
Reserve guards Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar even had words on the bench in Game 7 after Vujacic contended that Farmar didn't pass him the ball, leading Jackson to send a public warning signal after Monday's practice.
"We're still talking about how to be professional . . . and get the things done that have to get done in a professional way," Jackson said. "We have young players that are still very emotional about their game. Some of them are looking for contracts. These are all things that have to be put aside at this time."
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have been waiting around since dispatching Dallas last Wednesday, while the Lakers have had to pay the penalty for taking so long to finish off Houston, which they finally did Sunday afternoon.
The Lakers averaged six days between series in their run to the NBA Finals last season. Now, they're looking at little more than 48 hours before turning around against Denver.
"It's our first time really having to do this," Bryant said. "We did quite a bit of work (Monday)."
What they'll face is a team that has a little of everything.
Forgetting Anthony for a second, Nene had a breakthrough season at center, Billups proved to be a much steadier point guard than Allen Iverson, and Kenyon Martin will take a physical approach with Pau Gasol. The Nuggets' bench also has a proven scorer in J.R. Smith and a shot-blocking presence in Chris Andersen.
This definitely isn't a short-staffed Houston team.
"Denver's way more physical," Bryant said. "They have way more athletes. We've talked about it. Denver will put you to sleep. Quickly."
In a city where the Denver Broncos have won two Super Bowls and the Colorado Avalanche have won two Stanley Cups, the Nuggets have gone 32 years without ever advancing to the NBA Finals.
Some media members are picking the Nuggets based on their more inspired play in recent weeks, but oddsmakers are pegging the Lakers as almost three-to-one favorites.
The Nuggets easily dispatched New Orleans and Dallas, but they're not exactly getting respect. Their own coach chuckled when asked if they should be picked to beat the Lakers.
"I don't think we're the favorite," Nuggets Coach George Karl said. "I'm proud we got a few people saying we're going to compete."
The Nuggets were even assailed by an unlikely source Monday — pro wrestlers.
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon sent out a scathing statement when told his "Monday Night Raw" would be bumped from Pepsi Center next Monday in favor of Game 4.
"Even though the Denver Nuggets had a strong team this year and were projected to make the playoffs, obviously Nuggets and Pepsi Center owner Stan Kroenke did not have enough faith in his own team to hold the May 25th date for a potential playoff game," McMahon said.
Ouch. On that note, let the West finals begin.
The Lakers didn't gain many admirers after being taken to a Game 7 by Houston.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley openly admitted to cheering for the Rockets, and co-analyst Kenny Smith said it was hard to like the Lakers because they didn't "respect the league."
"I normally never care who wins but I was pulling for the Rockets before the game started," Barkley said.
"I've never done that before. As a fan and as a player, you have to respect them beating that really good Lakers team twice without Yao Ming."
Smith said that the Lakers' tendency to be complacent was a turn-off.
"That tends to make the non-Lakers fans not root for them," he said. "They might win it all, but I don't know if they deserve it because I don't know if they respect the league. Their skill level is so much higher than the Rockets and not respecting the league means that they just go about their business and say, 'We can win it any time because we can get them in Game 6 or Game 7.'
"For me, the teams that really win championships deserve it because they work hard from front door to back door, all the way through. I still think they are going to win it, but I can't root for that (mind-set)."
Barkley picked the Nuggets to win the West, Smith picked the Lakers.
Staff writer Mark Medina contributed to this report.