04/21/2005 12:00AM

City in running for NBA All-Star Game


The NBA has been the talk of this city the past week, and it had very little to do with the end of the regular season or the impending playoffs.

Las Vegas has been in talks with the NBA about hosting the 2007 All-Star Game and the ancillary events of All-Star Weekend, such as the slam dunk contest, 3-point shooting contest, and the rookie-sophomore game.

It appears the door opened for Vegas after news came out that the Boston Celtics, the presumed leader to land the All-Star Game in 2007, haven't been able to work out a lease agreement with the owners of the FleetCenter.

That left a void that Las Vegas is more than willing to fill. Mayor Oscar Goodman has made it his mission to promote Las Vegas as a major-league city, and has courted major-league sports in recent years, most notably in 2001, when he went after the Vancouver Grizzlies before the franchise chose to relocate to Memphis. Last year, Goodman pursued the Montreal Expos, who became the Washington Nationals.

Until recently Las Vegas seemed an unlikely host of the All-Star Game. But the serious consideration given to the city by Major League Baseball - which has usually tried to distance itself from the gambling mecca - seems to have softened the stance of other leagues.

The Maloof Brothers - Joe, Gavin, and George, who own the Sacramento Kings and the Palms casino just off the Strip - approached Goodman three weeks ago to discuss having Las Vegas host the All-Star Game, and Goodman was able to talk with the NBA. That led to NBA officials meeting with the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority last Thursday and receiving tours of possible sites.

Las Vegas obviously has the facilities to be a host site. There are 131,000 hotel rooms, the Thomas and Mack Center for the game, and the Las Vegas Convention Center or Sands Expo for the other festivities.

The only obstacle is gambling, but Goodman said he has received assurances from casino companies that they would take the All-Star exhibitions off the betting boards.

NBA playoffs kick off Saturday

NBA fans from 16 cities get to continue cheering for their teams when the NBA playoffs begin this weekend. Four first-round matchups will tip off Saturday, and four more begin Sunday. All eight games will be televised, and none will be on at the same time.

"It's not quite like the opening round of the NCAA tournament," said sports talk radio host John Kelly. "But it gives handicappers a chance to go to school on all the teams and how they match up."

Oddsmakers have already done their comparisons of the matchups, and lines were posted here in Vegas on Thursday morning for the weekend's first-round games. Also posted were the odds for the series and adjusted future-book prices to win the NBA title.

Here is a quick look at each series, in the order that their opening games tip off this weekend (the first team listed is the higher seed and has home-court advantage):

Saturday games

Pistons vs. 76ers: The defending champion Pistons are 8-point favorites in Game 1. Allen Iverson is always dangerous and could make the 76ers worth a play or two during the series, especially at home, but the Pistons should survive and advance, though I won't be risking the -800 (wager $8 for every $1 you want to win) odds that the Stardust opened as the series price.

Mavericks vs. Rockets: This Texas pairing is pretty evenly matched, as one would expect from the No. 4 and 5 seeds in the Western Conference, but the Stardust has the Mavs as a -250 favorite and the Rockets as a 2-1 underdog. The Mavs are favored by 5 1/2 in Game 1. This might be the best series for bettors who subscribe to the "zig-zag theory," which says to bet the straight-up loser against the spread in the next game.

Celtics vs. Pacers: Boston is the No. 3 seed in the East, but most observers see the Pacers as having a good chance for an upset. The Celtics are 4 1/2-point favorites in Game 1 and -150 favorites for the series, but I'll be backing the underdog here. Reggie Miller won't go quietly into retirement.

Sonics vs. Kings: This is another 3-6 matchup in which the underdog has a better-than-average chance to advance. The Sonics have struggled lately, and that is reflected in them only being a 3 1/2-point favorite at home in Game 1 with a series price of just -120.

Sunday games

Heat vs. Nets: The Heat are the favorites to win the NBA title, and that is reflected in the -1500 (risk $15 to win just $1) price to win this series. But as Lee Corso says during college football season, "Not so fast, my friends." The Nets have several players with playoff experience, and with the addition of Vince Carter, they are better than your typical No. 8 seed. In addition, Miami center Shaquille O'Neal has recently had problems with injuries, and I'll take a piece of the Nets at 10-1 and be looking to back them in just about every game, starting with the +9 being offered Sunday.

Bulls vs. Wizards: Michael Jordan's two former teams square off in a 4-5 matchup in the East. The Bulls are 4-point favorites Sunday and -160 for the series. Neither team has much playoff experience, unless you count NCAA tournament experience, and the Bulls are loaded with players from perennial college powerhouses: Ben Gordon played for UConn, the 2004 national champions; Kirk Hinrich played for Kansas; and Chris Duhon played for Duke. So, I prefer the Bulls, but I'm not going to be laying any points.

Spurs vs. Nuggets: The Spurs opened as 7-point favorites in Sunday's opener, with a series price of -700. The Nuggets have been one of the hottest teams in the league, posting a 25-4 record since the All-Star break, but the Spurs just have too much talent and playoff experience for the Nuggets to handle. The Nuggets pulled off an upset in 1994 over the Sonics, who were coached then by George Karl, the Nuggets' current coach. It would be a great story if Karl could repeat history and redeem himself in one fell swoop, but I won't be betting on it.

Suns vs. Grizzlies: Like the Heat, the Suns are -1500 to win the series and are favored by 9 1/2 in the opener. The Suns should roll, but I'll pass on betting this series unless I see something that changes my mind in the first couple of games.