DENVER (AP) -Allen Iverson wasn't ``The Answer'' in the short-term for the Denver Nuggets.
He joined them midway through last season, hailed as the savior who would help the Nuggets win a playoff series for the first time since 1994.
But trades, suspensions and injuries, including his own severely sprained ankle, precluded the team from developing any chemistry or cohesion, and A.I. was smothered by the San Antonio Spurs, averaging a career-worst 22.8 points in the postseason.
Iverson didn't look anything like the wizard who almost single-handedly drove Philadelphia in the playoffs, and the Nuggets were finished in five games for the fourth straight year.
Why will it be any different this time around when the eighth-seeded Nuggets face top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers starting Sunday?
Because, Iverson said, he's healthy again, the Nuggets have meshed after spending a training camp and a full season together and he and fellow All-Star Carmelo Anthony have proven that two superstars can indeed succeed side-by-side.
``I think they've learned how to coexist with each other and play off each other,'' Marcus Camby said. ``They're Nos. 3 and 4 in the league in scoring, they had a lot of balance out there, and they never let egos get in the way. They're both talented superstars.''
The Lakers have their own dominant duo in newcomer Pau Gasol and MVP hopeful Kobe Bryant, who will be matched aplenty with Iverson.
``Let's go. This is what it's all about for me. You can't draw it up any better,'' Iverson said. ``People say he's the best basketball player on the planet, so I'm definitely looking forward to the challenge. Especially with me believing that about myself, so let's go.
``This is what it's about. If you're scared, get a dog. If you're scared, go to church.''
The Nuggets certainly aren't shy about having to face Bryant, Gasol, Derek Fisher or Lamar Odom.
``I'd be lying if I said it's the same thing if I was playing New Orleans or if we were playing L.A.,'' Iverson said. ``Everybody know how big that stage is. I relish the moment. This is what I play basketball for. This is why I love it so much.''
Although they're facing the top team in the power-packed Western Conference once again, only seven wins separated the two uptempo teams in the standings. The Nuggets feel it's anybody's series.
``The last couple of years we've been unfortunate enough to play against the top team in the Western Conference. Our work was always cut out for us,'' Camby said. ``This year, we're coming in relatively healthy. ... We're a more balanced team, a more together team. We're playing pretty good basketball of late, we're playing great basketball here at home. Hopefully we can steal a few on the road.''
Although forward Nene missed most of the season with an assortment of ailments and is still working his way back into shape after testicular cancer surgery, and Chucky Atkins missed most of the year with a sports hernia, for once the Nuggets enter the playoffs relatively healthy.
Kenyon Martin has returned with a vengeance from microfracture surgeries on both knees and he teams with Camby, the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, to provide plenty of muscle inside.
Denver's bench is a lot better than it was a year ago, when Linas Kleiza was lost in the playoff's bright lights and J.R. Smith made so many boneheaded moves that he ended up getting benched.
Kleiza has become an offensive force and Smith worked his way out of coach George Karl's doghouse this year and sparked the Nuggets' late-season surge to their first 50-win season in two decades. Karl even nixed any notion of trading for Ron Artest at the deadline in part because he didn't want to stunt Smith's progress. And Eduardo Najera has added a 3-point prowess to his energy game.
``J.R., L.K. and Eddie have been great for us in this stretch of games, the survivor games,'' Karl said. ``Now when we're on the Broadway, they're going to have to step up further.''
The Nuggets are thankful they're not facing the Spurs in the first round again.
``It'll be more up and down as opposed to San Antonio sitting there and running halfcourt sets the whole game,'' Smith said.
Therefore, the Nuggets shouldn't have to abandon their high-flying game this time around.
``No one in this locker room has won a championship, and that's all what we're pretty much striving to do,'' Camby said. ``I think we're all tired of getting bounced out in the first round. I know myself, Kenyon and A.I. have been to Finals but we have nothing to show for it. I know that's what's driving us.''

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