The Lakers may be the defending NBA champions and the favorites to repeat again this year, but don't tell that to the Denver Nuggets. Even without Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets beat the Lakers for the second time this year on Friday night, 126-113 at Staples Center. It's now clear that Denver can compete with L.A., both at home and on the road.
At the start of the season, I made my annual predictions of how each team would finish this year. I thought the Nuggets would take a step backwards from a breakthrough season last year, when they finished second in the Western Conference. I picked the Lakers, Spurs, Blazers and Nuggets -- in that order.
I was wrong.
Denver is a better team than I gave them credit for. I thought the Nuggets would struggle because they didn't re-sign Dante Jones, their best defender, and Chauncey Billups would be a year older. But they went out and traded for Aaron Affalo, who is a similar defender to Jones, and better offensively. Billups doesn't appear to be getting any older, and showed on Friday why he was recently named as a late replacement in next Sunday's All Star Game.
Billups torched the Lakers for 39 points, including a career-high nine three-pointers.
And remember, they did this without Anthony, who currently leads the NBA in scoring at 29.7 points per game. Many feel he's one of the best five players in the NBA. Don't take that from me, take it from Kobe Bryant.
"He's probably the best mid-range scorer in the league," Kobe told me last year, "he also has a great work ethic -- always has. I developed a whole new respect for him when went to the Olympics."
Since most people think Bryant is the best mid-range scorer in the league, that's a high compliment.
Besides Anthony, Billups and Affalo, the Nuggets have good role players and a solid bench. Nene has turned into a very good NBA center, and Kenyon Martin is still an effective power forward. Chris Anderson is an annual candidate for the league's Sixth Man award, as is back-up guard J.R. Smith. Ty Lawson is a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate, and a perfect understudy to Billups. They also have a veteran coach in George Karl, who has been to the NBA Finals before.
On top of all of that, the Nuggets have a home court advantage that no other team has. Denver sits at a high altitude, and the thin air is always a factor to opponents that aren't used to playing there. But in addition, the airport in Denver is a good 45 minutes away from anything. Any time a team comes into the Pepsi Center in a back to back situation, they normally don't get to sleep until three or four in the morning. Since the West Coast teams also lose an hour, sometimes that means it's 5 a.m. if a team is going west to east.
That exact scenario played out for the Lakers the last time they played in Denver, back on November 13. The Lakers hosted Phoenix the night before in a TNT game, which meant we arrived in Denver at around 3:45 a.m. When I went to bed that night, it was almost five in the morning. The next day, the Nuggets blew open a close game in the third quarter and beat the Lakers, 105-79. L.A. scored only eight points in the third quarter, and 23 in the second half -- both season lows. Phil Jackson, who rarely makes excuses, admitted after the game that his team had no legs to start the second half.
"Our energy level wasn't where it needed to be," Jackson said after that game, "not even close."
The Lakers have the best home record in the NBA so far this year at 24-4. But the Nuggets are right behind at 22-4. When you combine their roster, the altitude and the airport, I don't think that's going to change.
I now fully expect the Nuggets to be right behind the Lakers in the standings when the regular season ends. Last year, the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals, with the Lakers winning four games to two.
Don't be surprised if there's a rematch this season. And just like last year, it won't be easy to knock out the Nuggets, no matter where the games are played.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.