Nuggets-Lakers Series Starts Sunday

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Lakers forward Lamar Odom is convinced there won't be any big surprises in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Odom isn't making any predictions, nor is he disrespecting the Denver Nuggets and the other so-called underdogs. He just believes the conference's eight playoff teams are so evenly matched that anything can happen.

The final regular-season standings support that premise.

''The eighth seed could have been the first seed. The second seed could have been the seventh seed,'' Odom said Saturday after the Lakers completed preparations for their first-round matchup with the Nuggets. ''Everybody was kind of shocked that Golden State beat Dallas (in the first round last spring). I don't think we'll have that this year.

''Every team is highly qualified. Ever since I started watching basketball, I can't remember a race this tight.''

The Lakers earned the top seed in the West by winning eight of their final nine games, giving them 57 victories. Five other teams in the West had at least 54 wins, and the Nuggets earned the eighth and final berth by winning 50 games for the first time in 20 years.

''A team that's won 50 games and is the eighth seed, I think that's remarkable,'' Lakers star Kobe Bryant said.

Game 1 will be played Sunday at Staples Center, where the Lakers have a 15-2 record against the Nuggets since the arena opened in 1999. The second game will be played Wednesday night before the best-of-seven series shifts to Denver.

''We had a great year,'' Odom said. ''The year is over. We have to win some games and advance.''

The Lakers haven't won a playoff series since 2004, when Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal led them to the NBA finals. O'Neal was traded a month after that, and it's been a struggle until this season.

''We have a lot of confidence,'' said Bryant, who appears to be in line for his first MVP award. ''We have some experience as well. We're ready to go.

''We just have to move the ball. We're a great team when everybody's moving and cutting.''

The blossoming of 20-year-old center Andrew Bynum gave the Lakers a different look early in the season, but Bynum hasn't played since injuring his left knee Jan. 13, and there's no timetable for his return.

The Lakers got a huge boost Feb. 1 when they acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis. They're 22-5 with the 7-foot Spaniard in their lineup, prompting Nuggets coach George Karl to call Gasol the second-most important addition to an NBA team this season, behind Boston's Kevin Garnett.

But Karl and his team realize everything starts and ends with Bryant.

''There are going to be times when he's going to command a lot of attention, and we definitely have to find a way to keep the ball out of his hands,'' said Nuggets center Marcus Camby, the NBA defensive player of the year last season.

''It's always a team effort guarding a superstar,'' Denver's Eduardo Najara said. ''We have to put the best defenders on him. But at the same time, everybody's got to be ready to help and make sure we get beat by everybody else instead of Kobe.''

Defense isn't generally a priority for Denver, which ranked second in the NBA in scoring but next-to-last in points allowed. Usually, the freewheeling Nuggets win by outscoring their opponents, and they certainly have the weapons in Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, who rank third and fourth, respectively, in scoring in the NBA right behind Bryant.

There's firepower from several other directions as well.

''Their productivity's been really high,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ''They're a real quick-hit type of team. We've got to do a job. We won't curtail our guys from getting up and down the court. We have to know what are good shots and what aren't in the transition game.''

The Lakers were 3-0 against the Nuggets during the regular season, but the teams haven't played since Jan. 21.

''We have to come out 10 times more focused than we were in the regular season,'' Anthony said. ''It's 0-0 now. We know what they are about. At the same time, we have to go out there and stop them.''

The Nuggets have been eliminated 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs each of the last four years.

''Hopefully it will be different this year,'' Karl said. ''This year, we're coming in relatively healthy. Nene's the only guy lingering right now, but hopefully he can come back soon. We're a more balanced team, a more together team.

''I think that if we turn the light switch on and tape it on, we'll be fine.''

Karl will be facing his son, Coby, a seldom-used rookie with the Lakers.

''I would never have thought at the beginning of the year that this would be the case,'' the younger Karl said. ''I'm one of his biggest fans, and he's one of my biggest fans. At this point, it's business.

''I'm sure I'll talk to him plenty. Maybe we won't talk for a couple days. You love your family, you want to see them succeed, but not at your expense.

''At this point, it's 'Go Lakers!'''