Forwards Devin Ebanks of the Lakers and Kenneth Faried of the Nuggets chase… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
These aren't your older brother's Denver Nuggets, the ones with Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Nene that were mainly speed bumps for the Lakers' deep playoff runs in 2008 and 2009.
This is the lighter, faster version that still might roll over and allow the Lakers to advance past the first round, but not before creating some lung burn in the mile-high air.
The Nuggets led the NBA in scoring this season, throwing off 104 points a game in a season where only two other teams averaged more than 100 (San Antonio and Oklahoma City).
Of course there's that little problem of the Nuggets' defense, surrendering 101 points a game, second-worst in the league and a reason why they finished no higher than sixth in the Western Conference … only after winning six of their last seven games, including road stops in Oklahoma City (which barely cared) and Minnesota (which stopped caring a month ago).
But the Nuggets are hasty and they're flighty, and the Lakers know it heading into Sunday's opener.
"They have a smaller lineup and we have to do a great job of controlling the pace," said Kobe Bryant, who couldn't pick one Nuggets player that concerned him more than others. "They all do. Because they're moving the ball extremely well. All their positions are interchangeable, so you really have to focus on each guy."
He has a point. A league-high seven players averaged double figures for the Nuggets, and Andre Miller (9.7) was almost an eighth.
Denver point guard Ty Lawson will keep Ramon Sessions plenty busy, Arron Afflalo is one of the NBA's better defensive shooting guards and the Lakers surely have bench envy regarding Miller and Al Harrington (14.2 points), the Nuggets' top reserves.
Power forward Kenneth Faried made an impression as a high-energy rookie, averaging 10.2 points and thoroughly enjoying his "Manimal" nickname.
The key for the Nuggets will be Danilo Gallinari, who was a possible All-Star reserve until sustaining a severely sprained ankle and, after returning from that, a broken thumb. He went from averaging 18.6 points in January to playing only four games in February and eight in March.
The Nuggets (38-28) have made the playoffs nine consecutive seasons but advanced out of the first round only once, losing to the Lakers in six games in the 2009 West finals, including a 27-point loss in the series finale.
"How we beat the Lakers, I don't know," Nuggets Coach George Karl told reporters. "But I'm just confident that if we play hard we will have a good chance."
While the Nuggets had to push to make the playoffs, the Lakers rested Bryant eight of their last 10 games. Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all skipped the regular-season finale, giving them a full week of rest between games.
"It gives us an opportunity to be healthy," Bryant said. "I feel great because of the games that I had off and this week is going to do wonders for Pau and 'Drew."
Many heads will turn toward Sessions, who has never participated in playoffs until now. A pleasant surprise since being acquired from Cleveland last month, he claimed to be ready for the biggest phase of his career after averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists in 23 games with the Lakers.
"I've been telling people that all day. It took me five years to get here but it's exciting and it's going to be a fun ride," he said. "We're definitely not looking forward to ending it any time soon."
Despite Metta World Peace sitting six more games because of a league suspension, Bryant remained typically optimistic, expressing confidence about the Lakers' playoff chances for a number of reasons.
"Because of the group we have and our versatility and our size and our ability to defend multiple positions and control the tempo," he said. "Those are all championship qualities."
Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.