On paper, the Lakers' matchup with Philadelphia on Friday night looked like a classic "trap" game.
The 76ers are one of the NBA's worst teams this season, and came into the game with a 22-35 record (10-17 on the road). The Lakers came in at 43-15 (26-5 at home), the second-best record in the league behind only Cleveland. In addition, Philadelphia was coming into the last game of a four-game trip while the Lakers were anticipating a nationally televised showdown with Denver at Staples Center on Sunday.
It would have been so easy to look past Philadelphia, and ahead to Denver, Phil Jackson addressed it with his team before the game. He knew no matter how many times the coaches told the players to concentrate on the Sixers, most players would be looking ahead.
"It's only natural to do that," Jackson said.
He asked the Lakers to meditate at the team's morning shootaround. Jackson has long been a proponent of the Zen philosophy, which encourages staying in the present. I knew he believed in it but wasn't sure the players would buy into it.
Before the game, I asked Jackson, "Does meditation really work?"
He seemed puzzled I would even ask.
"Yeah," he said, "it makes you focus on this game, the one in front of us."
That might be true in theory but after one quarter Philadelphia led 25-24, and early in the second quarter the Sixers led 33-28.
At halftime, the Lakers trailed 51-50. Samuel Dalembert, the Sixers center who came in averaging seven points a game, had 14 at the half (he finished with 24).
"The Lakers just sleepwalking tonight," Lakers radio announcer Spero Dedes said, "at least defensively."
But, shortly thereafter, the Lakers woke up. Behind Pau Gasol (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (20 points, 13 rebounds), they caught and passed the Sixers in the third quarter. After scoring only six first-half points, Kobe Bryant came alive, adding 13 second-half points to finish with 19. The Lakers won the game 99-90, sweeping the season series and setting the stage for Sunday's showdown with the Nuggets.
I've talked to several people in Denver who have confirmed something many of us who cover the Lakers have suspected for a long time: The Nuggets are the only team in the NBA not scared of the Lakers, in any way. Denver has won both meetings so far this season, one in each city. The Nuggets feel as if they can win any time they play L.A., and think they should have won last year's playoff series. Not only do they welcome another matchup with the Lakers in this year's playoffs, they seem to be rooting for it.
At the heart of it is Denver's belief that the Lakers are soft defensively. Guys such as Kenyon Martin and Nene feel that if they get physical with the L.A. big men, the Lakers won't push back. In the first meeting this season in Denver, the Nuggets won by 26 and outscored the Lakers 42-28 in the paint. In the second meeting at Staples Center, the Nuggets shot 57 percent from the field, and Chauncey Billups had a career-high 39 points. But what the Nuggets feel the best about is that they scored 105 points in the first game, and 126 in the second one. This is against a Lakers team allowing only 96 points per game on average.
All of it makes Sunday's game fascinating. One team is the champ, while the other team doesn't respect that, and actually believes the champ is an emperor with no clothes. If the Lakers lose Sunday, Denver will have more confidence than any team in the NBA in hopes of keeping L.A. from repeating in June.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.