LOS ANGELES (AP) The Los Angeles Lakers stepped off one thrill ride and, after little time to catch their breath, have to jump on another.
No big deal, Kobe Bryant said Monday, the only day the top-seeded Lakers had to prepare for the Western Conference finals against Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the second-seeded Denver Nuggets.
"You just get after it. We're pretty familiar with this team,'' Bryant said.
Game 1 is Tuesday night at Staples Center. The Lakers will be trying to get back to the NBA finals for the second straight year while the Nuggets will be trying to get there for the first time.
"Honestly, when we played them in Denver, the second-to-last time we played them, I told Melo, 'I'll see you in the Western Conference finals,' because I just felt like they had all the pieces there,'' Bryant said. "They had the depth, the toughness. They had the camaraderie. It's no surprise to me that they're here.''
The Lakers advanced after an erratic, baffling semifinal series against the Houston Rockets. After being pushed to Game 7, the Lakers responded with an 89-70 win on Sunday, getting a brilliant performance on both ends of the court by Pau Gasol, who had 21 points and 18 rebounds.
The Nuggets have been chilling since Wednesday night, when they eliminated the Dallas Mavericks and advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1985.
"They are going to come in with a lot of confidence and be ready to play,'' Bryant said. "They're going to come out on our home court and put on a show. We've got to be ready.''
The Nuggets are ready, having eliminated New Orleans and Dallas, each in five games. They just hope the rest doesn't lead to rust.
"We're very confident,'' Anthony said. "Not cocky, but confident. In the back of our minds we know what we did to get to this point.''
While the Lakers are Hollywood, the Nuggets are talented and entertaining in their own right, with Billups, Anthony, Nene, Kenyon Martin, Dahntay Jones and Chris "Birdman'' Andersen.
The Nuggets say they'll have to step it up defensively, which the Lakers did in eliminating the Rockets on Sunday.
"We're playing at a very good level, a very efficient offensive level,'' coach George Karl said. "Defensively, we have not been special. Against New Orleans we were pretty good. The Dallas series turned into an offensive game. I don't think we can win an offensive game against the Lakers. We have to win at least two games with our defense.''
Martin, who along with Nene will be matched up against Gasol, agreed.
"They have great offensive talent, so we are going to bring our best defensive game we are capable of playing,'' Martin said. "I think we proved during the playoffs we can stand up if we put our heads into it. It's just a matter of us going out and doing it''
The Nuggets have gone 1-10 against L.A. the last two seasons, including a four-game sweep in the first round of last year's playoffs, when Denver became the first 50-win team in league history to get swept in the first round. Karl hasn't won at Staples Center since taking over as Denver's coach midway through the 2004-05 season.
"Well, I think you can pull some things from that,'' Billups said. "But like I said, we're just a totally different basketball team right now, so none of that stuff really matters. It's playoff basketball. It's a different intensity, it's a different focus. Everything is different. "
Los Angeles won the season series 3-1.
"Their personnel is obviously challenging,'' Gasol said. "We have a really good team and we are feeling really good right now after yesterday's win. We're ready to step up and continue this right path we're building.''
The Lakers were wildly inconsistent against the Rockets, looking all-world one game, then getting railroaded the next. Bryant said they decided at halftime of Game 6 - which they ended up losing by 15 points - to turn up their defense a notch, something they think they can carry into this series.
Asked if the Lakers deserved the beating they took from the media for their split personality, Bryant laughed.
"I mean, I always find that stuff entertaining to read,'' he said. "We as a ballclub, we know what we have to do. I'm definitely more upset than anything anybody could write about. We're harder on ourselves than anything anybody can write.
Said Gasol: "I think what we went through with Houston made us grow as a team. Hopefully we'll show that.''
Bryant and Anthony became friends last summer when they were teammates on the U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold medal in Beijing.
"He's like a brother to me,'' Bryant said. "Truly, I love him. We spent a lot of time together last summer. He was the one I was the most close with on the team.''
Said Anthony: "That's my man. That's my guy, but I don't know him this week.''
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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