Have the Denver Nuggets closed the gap on the Lakers?
The Nuggets did push the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference finals last season, losing two games because they turned the ball over on inbounds plays.
The Nuggets did defeat the Lakers by 26 points in Denver in November.
So the question was posed to Denver Coach George Karl.
Do the Nuggets believe they have the talent to beat the Lakers in the playoffs?
Karl smiled and laughed before he answered.
"I think it's respectful belief," Karl said. "I think just in general, we know how we have to play. We know if we play this way, we're going to get beat. I think we know what we have to do. And that's not a guarantee that you are going to beat them. I think that we know this formula gives us the best chance and I think we're learning that."
The formula the Nuggets employed Friday night was the long ball, three-pointers from Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith, and then just plain knocking down shots in a 126-113 victory over the Lakers at Staples Center.
Denver has defeated the Lakers twice this season, and both victories have been by double digits.
The win Friday night pulled the Nuggets to within 3 1/2 games of the Lakers for the best record in the West.
"You always got to be confident," said Billups, who dropped a career-high 39 points on the Lakers, including making a career-high nine three-pointers.
"There are a lot of people that say it, but until you do it, you've got to get that confidence from the right place. 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. They are the world champs. But we feel like we can compete with them."
The Nuggets did that and more and they did it without All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who missed his sixth consecutive game because of a sprained left ankle.
Anthony sat on the Nuggets' bench and watched it all unfold.
He watched his team improve to 8-4 overall without him in the lineup.
With Anthony out, the Nuggets lose his 29.7 points a game, which is tied for the NBA lead.
"Offensively, we're a little short," Karl said. "I think actually the Lakers aren't playing great offense, but they are playing better defense than they have all year long."
Not Friday night.
The Nuggets made 57.1% of their shots, an amazing 68.2% (15 for 22) of their three-pointers.
Smith provided the Nuggets with 27 points on 11-for-27 shooting off the bench. He was three for four from three-point range.
Kenyon Martin had 11 points and 12 rebounds, Ty Lawson had 13 points and Chris Andersen had 15 rebounds for a Nuggets team that had six players score in double figures.
"We feel we can play with them guys," Martin said about the Lakers. "They won it last year, but we feel we were right there. Minus a couple of mishaps we had in the playoffs, we feel we were right there. They are a good team, there's no doubt about that. But we feel we can play with them guys."
In the third quarter, it was as if Billups were playing by himself.
He had 21 points, two shy of a Lakers opponent high in a quarter held by Wilt Chamberlain when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1966.
Billups was 12 for 20 from the field. He made nine of his 13 three-point attempts.
"I got some good looks," Billups said about his third-quarter exploits. "They gave me space to get my shot off. Any shooter, sometimes when you get it going, you just feel like you can't miss sometimes."
The Lakers and Nuggets meet twice more, here Feb. 28 and in Denver on April 8.
Denver will be ready, just as they have been so far this season.
"Their face has changed," Karl said about the Lakers. "[ Ron] Artest gives them a different face. Sometimes it has been good, sometimes it has been bad.
"Where it ends up in April, we're all going to be studying one another. But I don't think there's any question after last year that we have a little extra focus on what the Lakers are doing every night and we might be doing a little extra studying of how to beat the best teams in the West. And of course the Lakers would be on top of that list."