The Nuggets passed their first true test of the young season by winning at Portland in Game 2. Test #2 takes place tonight, and it's another big one.
It certainly would have helped had Phoenix given the Lakers a fight last night before the Lakers had to board their late night plane to Denver. Remember, the worst back-to-back in the NBA is when you play the 8:30pm Thursday night TNT game...which always starts late...then have to go on the road to a boisterous, packed arena in a small market the following night. Throw in this being Denver at 5,280 feet above sea level and the Lakers being without Nugget-killer Pau Gasol, and the Nuggets have no excuse not to win tonight. The Nuggets won't get a more favorable situation to best the Lakers than this.
But's its a big test nonetheless when the world champs - who crushed the Nuggets in the final six quarters of the conference finals after being outplayed or played even in the first 18 quarters of the series - come to town. The Nuggets must avenge that bitter Game 6 home loss beginning tonight.
There's an X-factor tonight though that throws a wrinkle into an already heated affair: Ron Artest. In Carmelo Anthony's last eight matchups with Ron Ron (three while Artest was with the Rockets and five with the Kings), Melo has shot 8-for-21, 8-for-19, 1-for-4 (Melo left the game early due to his elbow injury), 11-for-21, 5-for-16, 10-for-20, 11-for-24 and 7-for-25. And now that he plays with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, Artest can focus on the defensive end of the floor even more. Hence why I always liked the signing of Artest for the Lakers (remember, Melo would just waltz over Trevor Ariza last season). He's like their Melo Insurance Policy. Moreoever, Artest hardly exerted himself last night, playing just 28 minutes in the Lakers walkover victory against the Suns.
When pundits like Reggie Miller predicted that the Lakers would go 20-1 through their first 21 games thanks to an absurdly favorable early season schedule, that one loss was assumed to be tonight. I believe the Nuggets will win, but have learned to assume nothing when playing the Lakers after witnessing what happened in the postseason. The Nuggets were clearly the better team in that series for those first 18 quarters, but suddenly, abruptly and startlingly Kobe, Lamar and Gasol came alive and the Nuggets were toast. At least we only have to worry about two of the three tonight.
The game plan for beating the Lakers - especially with Gasol out - remains the same: pound it inside, get Bynum into early foul trouble, let Kobe exhaust himself into a 40-point night if necessary and don't let Odom or Artest beat you offensively. I'm excited to see Ty Lawson in particular play tonight because the Lakers historically have fits with small, quick guards (although the addition of Shannon Brown has helped them somewhat there).
-Lamar Odom: Shooting a career second-worst 42.7% from the field and averaging a career low 10.3 ppg despite playing seven minutes per game more than last season. You know how sitcoms always suck after someone gets married? Maybe the same is happening to Lamar's career.
-Derek Fisher: Shooting a career second-worst 31.8% from three-point range, which just means he'll miss two wide open three's early in the game and then make the one clutch three the Lakers have to have.
-Jordan Farmar: Farmar seems to have been supplanted by Brown as the Lakers go-to backup point guard. Shooting a career worst 31.6% from the field in a contract year isn't helping either.
-Kobe Bryant: I hate the guy but he's carrying my fantasy team right now and is only getting better with age. With Artest on board, Bryant can take it easier on defense which makes him that much more lethal offensively, evidenced by him having three 40-plus point games already. Like I wrote at the time, it's just not fair that the Lakers got Artest.
-Andrew Bynum: Now in his fifth season, Bynum is averaging 21 ppg and 11.3 rpg in Gasol's absence. Oh, and he just turned 22. Again, not fair.
-Ron Arest: The aforementioned Artest brings a new dynamic to the Lakers. He makes them tougher, more pesky and saves Kobe and Lamar much needed energy. Did I mention having Ron Artest on the Lakers just isn't fair?
On a side note, if you're going to the game tonight and want to meet up drop me an email!
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Doug Pensinger