06/02/2003 12:00AM

Don't write off a Nets upset just yet


To hear a lot of the pundits, you would think the New Jersey Nets should not even bother showing up in the NBA finals vs. the San Antonio Spurs.

I'll grant the experts' argument that the Western Conference was far superior to the East all season long. They point out that the top six teams in the West had records better than or equal to the top team in the East. That's certainly true, but what they fail to take into consideration is that the Nets don't have to face all those teams.

You can talk about the mystique of the Lakers, the awesomeness of Kobe and Shaq, the Kings' depth, the high-wire act of the Mavericks, but all of that is irrelevant. The Nets just have to face the Spurs. It's a seven-game series between two quality teams. A swing of momentum, a lucky bounce, and anything can happen.

Besides, this is basketball, which is conducive to upsets (see March Madness). One or two players can make a difference, and Nets point guard Jason Kidd is one such difference. He contributes more than his numbers show in the box score, and the team is playing as well as anyone, having won 10 straight games, even if it was against inferior competition. Other people will say the Nets will be rusty since they haven't played in 11 days, but the Spurs haven't played since last Saturday because of this ridiculous delay in the start of the series, dragging it out for TV.

This is not meant as a guarantee that the Nets will knock off the Spurs, but their chances are certainly better than many people think.

The Stardust opened the Spurs as a -400 favorite to win the series. The Stardust has some future-book liability on the Spurs, but Bob Scucci, director of race and sports, said he didn't shade the number too much.

"That's the number we felt it should be," Scucci said.

But Scucci still got the Nets money he was hoping for, as the price on the Spurs was bet down as low as -300. As of noon Monday, the Spurs were back up to -330 with the buy-back on the Nets at +250.

The only thing that concerns me with backing the Nets is that the public seems to be betting that way. At least it doesn't appear to be too much "square" money, as the masses aren't too interested in this series. Scucci said he has low expectations for the handle, especially after the last three years with the Lakers in the NBA finals.

"There's no comparison," Scucci said. "Half the people love the Lakers, and half the people hate the Lakers, so we would get action both ways. There's just not as much interest in the Spurs and Nets."

The Stardust also has odds on each team winning the series in a certain number of games. A four-game sweep by the Spurs is 4-1, while they are 3-1 to win in exactly five games, 9-5 to wrap it up in six, and 5-2 to have to go to a decisive seventh game. The Nets are 25-1 to pull off a shocking sweep, 8-1 to win in five games, and 10-1 on stealing the title on the Spurs' home floor in game 6 or game 7.

I believe the 2-3-2 format is also in favor of the Nets, especially if they can split the first two games in San Antonio. They would then have three straight home games and it's not a stretch to imagine them winning two of three since they will probably be short favorite in all three games. That would mean they would only have to win one of the last two games on the road, and 10-1 looks attractive for a Nets upset in game 7.

As for Wednesday night's game 1, the Spurs opened as 6 1/2-point favorites but that has been bet down to 6.

The real value in betting this series might be the individual games. I'm not as confident in the Nets winning the series outright as I am that they will have a winning record against the spread. The game 2 line for Friday night will be similar to the game 1 line, and I can't see the Nets getting blown out in both games, so the worst result would be a split, and perhaps there will be one outright win and a loss by less than 6 points. Again, this shouldn't be regarded as unfathomable to anyone, as we have all seen that the Spurs have a tendency to let teams stick around, even in games as important as game 1 of their last series with the Mavericks.

When the series moves to New Jersey on Sunday, it will be interesting to see where oddsmakers set the line. When these two teams met way back on Nov. 13, the Nets were favored by 4 1/2 at home and won 91-82 (more fodder for those looking to back the Nets).

Lakers favored for next year

People who are not interested in this matchup can already put down bets on who will win next year's NBA championship. Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which supplies odds to 90 percent of the sports books in Nevada as well as bookmakers worldwide, has the Lakers as the 2-1 favorite to reclaim their title.

The Spurs and the Sacramento Kings are co-second choices at 7-2, followed by the Dallas Mavericks (8-1), the no-respect Nets (12-1), and a quartet of teams at 18-1: Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Hockey looks to the future, too

After the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' 3-2 overtime victory on Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils held a 2-1 series lead heading into Monday night's game 4 of the NHL's Stanley Cup finals. If the Devils were to win Monday, they would be going for the Stanley Cup clincher on Thursday night back at home.

But regardless of how impressive the Devils may look, they are still only the second choice to win next year's Stanley Cup, according to LVSC. The Detroit Red Wings, who were knocked out in the first round by the Ducks, are the 5-1 favorites, followed by the Devils (6-1), Colorado Avalanche (7-1), Dallas Stars (8-1), Ottawa Senators (8-1), Philadelphia Flyers (10-1), Vancouver Canucks (10-1), and St. Louis Blues (15-1).

If the Ducks are able to make a series of it and earn more respect, it's assumed their odds will be lowered, but as of Monday morning they were no better than the ninth choice at 15-1, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs.