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Los Angeles Lakers vs Denver Nuggets

Los Angeles (7-1) at Denver (6-3)

Although Friday’s game is just one of 82 on the schedule, the Denver Nuggets are understandably putting a little more emphasis on this matchup.

Facing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since last season’s Western Conference finals, Denver looks to get back on track following a lengthy trip.

But the way the Pacific Division-leading Lakers are playing, that could be quite a challenge.

After rolling through New Orleans and Dallas in the opening two rounds of the 2008-09 playoffs and advancing to their first West finals since 1985, the Nuggets fell to Los Angeles in six games. In the series finale at the Pepsi Center on May 29, the Lakers routed Denver 119-92 and advanced to their second straight NBA finals behind Kobe Bryant’s(notes) 35 points and 10 assists and 20 points apiece from Pau Gasol(notes) and

“We’ve been waiting kind of all summer to re-introduce ourselves to the Lakers,” coach George Karl told the Nuggets’ official Web site. “I think it’s kind of good to have the first one on your court.”

Denver and Los Angeles play four times during the regular season, but this heated rivalry got a jump-start in the preseason. In both teams’ exhibition finale Oct. 23 in San Diego, the Nuggets’ 119-105 victory was overshadowed by eight technical fouls, two flagrants and an altercation under the basket between Odom and Denver center Chris Andersen(notes).

“They’re going to be ready to go up against us, especially after the little melee we had in San Diego,” said Bryant, who averaged 36.7 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds as the Lakers won two of three in Denver in the West finals. “It will be interesting.”

The Nuggets (6-3) will try to improve to 3-0 at home for the first time since 1989-90 as they play their first game at the Pepsi Center since Nov. 1. Denver’s six-game eastern trip ended with a 108-102 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday.

The Nuggets have dropped three of four since a 5-0 start.

“Before the season started, you probably would’ve taken 6-3,” Karl said. “After being 5-0, you’re probably hoping for a little bit more.”

Denver, though, couldn’t ask for much more from Carmelo Anthony(notes), who is averaging a career-best 30.2 points. He scored 14.5 points per game as the Nuggets lost three of four to the Lakers in the 2008-09 regular season, but he improved his production to 27.5 in the conference finals.

While the Lakers will likely give Ron Artest(notes) the task of guarding Anthony, Denver will need to find someone to slow down Bryant after defensive specialist Dahntay Jones(notes) signed with Indiana in the offseason.

Bryant had 29 points and center Andrew Bynum(notes) added 26 with 15 rebounds as Los Angeles (7-1) shot a season-best 57.6 percent from the field and won its sixth straight Thursday - 121-102 over a Phoenix team leading the NBA in scoring at 111.3 points per game.

“We did a great job trying to corral a team that’s been scoring out of this world,” Bryant said.

Gasol will not make his season debut Friday due to a strained right hamstring, but Bynum could create problems for Denver’s Nene and Kenyon Martin(notes) after a strong showing Thursday following a two-game absence with a strained right elbow.

“I got my legs back, and I’m fresh,” Bynum said. “As far as the elbow goes, I’m going to continue getting treatment. It hurts a little bit, but it’s going to be that way for a little while.”

The Lakers and Nuggets next play Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.

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