No matter the roads taken, the top two seeds in the Western Conference are here. The Lakers and Nuggets collide with the berth in the Finals on the line. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Denver is well-rested for its first visit to the West finals since Reagan occupied the White House. The six-day break is the reward for eliminating Dallas last Wednesday. Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and the rest of the Nuggets have sent both postseason foes packing in a tidy five games.
They're ready for the Lakers.
"We've been preparing for them for a few days now," Denver forward Kenyon Martin said Sunday. "It's going to be a tough task, but I think the guys are up for it. They're a good team, but we're playing pretty good basketball as well."
Unlike the quick work made by Denver, the Lakers are coming off an emotional roller coaster with Houston. A seven-game series of highs and lows did end with a Sunday afternoon's rout, as Pau Gasol scored 21 to keep Los Angeles' defense of its conference crown alive.
"We learned that if we play hard every night and we're ready to compete, starting on the defensive end, we're going to give ourselves a chance," Gasol said. "Hopefully we're going to carry that into the next round and to a championship. That's something we need to do consistently no matter what, no matter where we play."
The Lakers did win the regular-season series over the Northwest Division champs 3-1, with both games at home and splitting at the Pepsi Center. L.A. also owns a 13-2 all-time record in the Playoffs against Denver, including a four-game sweep in the first round last year.
Head-to-head: Kobe Bryant vs. Carmelo Anthony
The Olympic teammates have taken their games to another level this postseason. Bryant was the only constant for an inconsistent team in its matchup with Houston, averaging 27 points over seven games. Kobe is able to get his shot off whenever he needs to, and shows up home and away.
Anthony is enjoying a breakout playoff run on two fronts after five years of first-round flameouts. Melo has lead the franchise to the first series win in 15 years and first conference finals since 1985, while showing he's clutch in games that really matter. His all-around numbers through 10 games -- 27 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Kobe scored 31 a game during the regular season against Denver. Melo wasn't as productive, scoring just 14.5. Both played in all four games.
Behind the numbers
100 -- The Lakers broke the century mark three times in four meetings during the regular season, while the Nuggets did so just once.
Five big questions
Can the Lakers get out of this series without winning on the road?
They did so in the last one after the Rockets stole the homecourt in Game 1. The Lakers promptly won the next two games, including Game 3 at Houston, to regain control of the series. But their lackluster performance in the fourth and sixth games, when the Rockets were without Yao Ming, throws up major yellow flags.
The Nuggets are undefeated at home during playoffs, running their winning streak to 16 going back to the regular season. Every one of the victories inside the wild and raucous Pepsi Can has been by double figures.
Though the Lakers don't have to win in Denver, should the Nuggets steal one in L.A., the meltdowns in Houston could come flooding back. The Lakers are 2-3 away from home during the Playoffs. The Nuggets are 2-2 on the road this postseason.
Where's the frontline edge: Lakers' length vs. Nuggets' athleticism?
Both teams rely on the frontcourt, but the two units have vastly different responsibilities. The Lakers call on theirs to handle much of the offensive load. Denver erases defensive mistakes, usually by means of the swat.
Los Angeles' big guys never seem to end. Gasol and Andrew Bynum, both 7-footerers, and 6-10 Lamar Odom form an intimidating triple-tower setup with an impressive set of skills. All three have above-average hands and can clean up the glass. Gasol has been Kobe's second banana for much of the Playoffs. Odom has been limited by a sore back and Bynum is still coming around from his pre-All-Star break knee injury.
"Their length does a good job at controlling and protecting the paint, which is one of our strengths," Denver coach George Karl said. "We score near the basket as good as anyone in the league, but we have to make good reads."
The Nuggets counter with an active trio -- Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen -- with none of the three reaching 7-feet. None of the three has Gasol's moves in the post or Odom's ability to handle the ball. What they lack in skill, they make up for in activity. Nene was the second coming of Amar'e Stoudemire against Dallas. Martin is strong finisher who gets his shots in the flow. Birdman is all about blocking shots and defense.
What does the Lakers' historic dominance mean?
The Nuggets, like most of the Western Conference, have been owned by the Lakers through the years. Denver trails the all-time series 93-46 and has had even worse luck in the Playoffs.
The Lakers expect to be in the Finals just about every year, much less the conference finals. This is new ground for the Nuggets. Factor in the Lakers' success in the head-to-head matchup between the franchises and the psychological edge appears to rest squarely with the Purple & Gold.
"It's going to be a great series. Regular season is over with it," Martin said, tossing aside history. "It's 0-0 with us. It's a great opportunity for us to prove to everybody we can play, that we're a legitimate contender. We know it around here, but we still have to go out and win a big series. It's going to be fun."
Can the Nuggets intimidate a group whose heart is being questioned?
Denver is tired of the "thug" label and justifiably so, but the team makes no bones about the way it plays. The Nuggets aren't afraid to muscle up and get dirty, from Chauncey Billups on down and especially on the defensive end. They play a style some have called borderline dirty.
"They got one-on-one players," Odom said. "They're tough defensively as a group. They're athletic. They're a great team."
The Lakers were criticized for cowering several times against a Houston squad that also likes to mix it up. With a deeper and more versatile roster, don't expect Denver to let up. The Nuggets have forced a postseason-high 16.4 turnovers per game.
Who will rise to the occasion or get swept up by the moment?
This question might be the biggest wildcard for the Nuggets. Billups, making his seventh straight trip to the conference finals has been there before. K-Martin reached the Finals twice in New Jersey. For most of the rest, this is uncharted territory.
It's old hat for Kobe and Derek Fisher, who own three rings each. The remained of the Lakers' rotation also knows what it means to play for a title. Experience can't be discounted.
"We are all here to accomplish something great," Gasol said.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6
If the depleted Rockets can take the Lakers seven, what's going to happen against a better team at full-strength and playing with a chip on its tattooed shoulder?