Kobe vs. LeBron would bring the best player buzz to the NBA finals, and Lakers-Celtics is always a can't-miss matchup.

Nobody really considered that the Lakers wouldn't show up.

Los Angeles was an expected stop on the finals itinerary all season long, but suddenly Denver looks increasingly possible instead. With the Nuggets surging and the Lakers struggling through the playoffs, there are more questions about whether the defending conference champs really are the best in the West.

"Denver and Cleveland are the two best teams I've seen in the playoffs," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said this week. "I'm going to stick with my pick, I think the Denver Nuggets are going to the finals. The Lakers have been too inconsistent."

Plenty are jumping off the Los Angeles bandwagon right along with him. Nobody is questioning the Lakers' talent, just their desire and ability to demonstrate it on a nightly basis.

"We've seen the Lakers, they are the most skilled team in basketball, probably the best personnel from 1-12, and they know it and they are arrogant about it," said Barkley's partner, Kenny Smith. "Because they are arrogant, they get complacent."

The Lakers are playing Sunday, just in the wrong round against the wrong opponent.

Instead of hosting the Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles has to play a seventh game in the semifinals against a undermanned Houston team - which they insist is no concern.

"You know what, you've got to grind these things out," Bryant said. "We could be playing much better on a more consistent basis, but we're not. The key right now is to win by any means necessary. Just win the damn series. Get the hell out of this one."

Already without Tracy McGrady, the Rockets lost Yao Ming for the season after dropping Game 3. Yet they've won two of the past three games, jumping out to enormous early leads in both Games 4 and 6.

Two nights after blowing out the Rockets by 40 and again looking like the best team in basketball to take a 3-2 lead, the Lakers somehow found themselves down 17-1 Thursday en route to a 95-80 loss.

"This series has woke us up and we have to be ready to play from the beginning," Lakers forward Trevor Ariza said.

The Lakers' rocky postseason - they repeatedly had trouble putting away the Utah Jazz despite big leads in their first round - could be similar to what Boston went through last year.

After rolling to 66 wins and the NBA's best record, the Celtics needed seven games to survive each of their first two series. By the time they reached the finals, many experts were picking against them - which Boston coach Doc Rivers understood.

"Well, we caused it. We didn't play well in the first two series," he said during the finals. "I thought it was great for us in the long run, I really do.

"I did think it helped our team, and it helped me see how guys reacted in those situations, as well. So if they come up again, you're better equipped to get through it."

And maybe the Lakers will, finding a stern test from Houston was exactly what they needed after breezing through the West playoffs last year.

But what if their problems aren't all mental, and Denver is simply a better team?

The Nuggets have everything a championship contender needs: solid point guard leadership from Chauncey Billups, an explosive scorer in Carmelo Anthony, rugged interior play from Nene and Kenyon Martin, and energetic bench contributions from J.R. Smith, Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter.

They cruised through their first two opponents in five games, outscoring New Orleans and Dallas by 16 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field

"We're good enough to make some noise," Denver coach George Karl said. "We're playing basketball at a really nice level."

Meanwhile, the Lakers are showing some flaws. Derek Fisher has shot the ball terribly and looks a step slow on defense. Sasha Vujacic isn't providing the timely shooting off the bench he delivered last year. Lamar Odom is banged up after landing on his back after a hard fall.

That might be enough to consider Cleveland or Denver the favorites in potential matchups with the Lakers. And that's the way ABC's Mark Jackson is going after calling the Game 4 and Game 6 debacles.

"One thing I know," he said late in Game 6, "is that those teams are going to show up."


AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.