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Lakers vs. Nuggets: The optimism test (8:30pm MST)

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As we've become accustomed to as Nuggets fans, while our team has had to endure a brutal early season schedule the Lakers have coasted to an 8-0 record thanks to an easy home schedule and only one pair of back-to-back games. But I suppose those are the breaks you get when you're the NBA's marquee franchise.

When we last saw the NBA champions up-close, the Nuggets were on the right end of a thrilling 98-96 victory thanks to Carmelo Anthony's last-second block on Derek Fisher's attempted game-winning shot. With that win under Denver's belt, the Nuggets finished their 2009-10 season series against the Lakers with three wins in four games.

That was the good news. The bad news was that Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant sat out the fourth game and in the first game between the two, a 105-79 route at Pepsi Center early in the season, the Lakers rested virtually their entire lineup for the second half as they were playing a back-to-back and had been on national TV the night before.

My point being, you can't read anything into the Nuggets two home victories over the Lakers last season. Which is why Thursday's match up between the two should be so thrilling. Unlike both games played at Pepsi Center last season, this one should be a fair fight. Neither team is on a back-to-back and both should be somewhat rested.

Well, somewhat.

The Nuggets are coming off an exhausting four-games-in-five-nights road trip that ended with a humiliating defeat to one of the NBA's worst teams while the Lakers had the luxury of relaxing at home for a week while the Raptors, Blazers (playing on a back-to-back themselves) and Timberwolves came to town just to get walked over. The Raptors and Wolves actually made it competitive for three-and-a-half quarters before the Lakers decided to play sort of hard and kept their winning streak alive.

The Nuggets recent spate of games has really tested the optimists around here. On the one hand, you can't fault them for being 4-4. Their four losses are comprised of at an undefeated New Orleans Hornets team, home against the Dallas Mavericks while missing Nene (and losing by a mere point), at the Chicago Bulls in a squeaker and at the Indiana Pacers in that dreaded fourth-game-in-five-nights which the Nuggets never win on the road anyway. We can argue about the one-sidedness of that loss in Indianapolis, but those games happen from time to time. Remember the 125-100 drubbing at Atlanta last year? That was a fourth game in five nights. And the all-time embarrassing 114-70 loss at New Jersey two seasons ago? Ditto.

So we can - and should - be able to live with a 4-4 record to date. But that doesn't change the fact that we're 4-4 during a season with no margin for error. A loss-here-and-a-loss-there could mean the imminent departure of Carmelo Anthony. With each loss, Melo's chances of staying in a Nuggets uniform become more-and-more remote (they were remote to begin with, but I'm trying to give some credence to the "if we win a lot of games Melo will want to stay forever" argument).

I don't know about you, but I'm thrilled that the Lakers are coming to town at this point in the season. I couldn't think of a better opponent to test this Nuggets team and to see if our optimism is authentic or has been misplaced. If these Nuggets are as good as we think they are, then the Lakers first loss should come around 11:15 p.m. on Thursday night (damn those 8:30 p.m. starts!!). But taking down the two-time defending champs will be no easy feat. Yes, the Lakers aren't playing their best basketball by letting the likes of the Raptors and Wolves come close to stealing games, but they are 8-0 for a reason: they just know how to win games.

Of course, it helps when you only have to play one back-to-back set out of your first eight games, have only played two teams that made the playoffs last season and get ample time off in between home dates. But hey, there's a reason why the Lakers have appeared in almost half of all the NBA Finals ever played.

SCOUTING THE LAKERS...

Lakers Non-Stiffs

-Kobe Bryant: After playing through an assortment of injuries last season, the 32-year-old Bryant looks healthy and is probably heading into MJ territory if he claims his sixth championship ring at season's end. Bryant even had a triple-double by posting a 30/10/12 on the Kings a week and a half ago.

-Pau Gasol: Speaking on triple-doubles, Gasol had the fourth of his career when he put up a 20/14/10 game against the Blazers four nights ago.

-Lamar Odom: With the exception of a clunker against the Raptors, Odom hasn't had a bad game this season and his numbers are way up from last season. Unlike his Team USA teammate Chauncey Billups, it appears as though playing in the FIBA World Championships improved Odom's conditioning and energy.

Lakers Stiffs

-Sasha Vujacic: Will make $5.5 million this year in spite of routinely getting DNP-CD'd, has no pressure to perform whatsoever and will soon by marrying Maria Sharapova. How much do you hate this guy?!

-Matt Barnes: Just because. Barnes is an instigating pest and I've never liked his erratic game or erratic behavior.

-Luke Walton: Luuuuuuuke is scheduled to make $6.1 million...two full seasons from now! Just further proof of why the NBA needs to restructure player salaries.

FINAL THOUGHT

Even though there's no shame in being 4-4 given the Nuggets schedule and the Lakers 8-0 record is a joke considering the cream puff opponents the NBA scheduled for them, much of a team's confidence is derived from their current record. In order to beat the Lakers on Thursday night, the Nuggets will need to play like a 6-2 team.

Opposition's Take: Silver Screen & Roll