05/27/2003 12:00AM

Holiday weekend lacked its old drama


The Los Angeles Lakers used the last three Memorial Day weekends as a springboard to winning three straight NBA championships.

Last year was particularly memorable, as it was on the Sunday before Memorial Day that Robert Horry picked up a loose ball and nailed a pressure-packed three-pointer at the buzzer to even the series with the Sacramento Kings at two games apiece instead of falling behind 3-1.

This past holiday weekend wasn't nearly as dramatic. On Saturday, the New Jersey Nets wrapped up the Eastern Conference title by completing a four-game sweep over the Detroit Pistons with a 102-82 victory. Ho-hum. Out west, the Spurs grabbed a 3-1 series lead with a methodical 102-95 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

The Spurs' victory was indicative of their entire season. While most people were concentrating on the Lakers, Kings, and run-and-shoot Mavericks all year long, the Spurs quietly put up the league's best record. They were even made an underdog versus the Lakers despite sweeping them during the regular season and having home-court advantage.

With the Lakers out, sports books in Las Vegas has seen a noticeable drop in NBA handle, especially among tourists who drove in from Southern California over the weekend.

There also wasn't much NHL betting to be done over the holiday, with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks having swept the Minnesota Wild way back on May 16 in the Western Conference finals and the New Jersey Devils winning a decisive Game 7 over the Ottawa Senators for the Eastern title on Friday night. There weren't any other hockey games played over the weekend, but those same Southern California fans were willing to dip into their wallets and back the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to win the Stanley Cup over the Devils. New Jersey opened as a -175 favorite (lay $1.75 to win $1) with the Ducks at +155, but enough money came in on the Ducks to push their odds as low as +135 at the MGM Mirage books. The series was to begin Tuesday night.

Sorenstam goes under, over

Knowing that betting handle might not be as strong as in the past, bookmakers were in a difficult position last Friday. Some were going to lose money if Annika Sorenstam made the cut at The Colonial (as a lot of recreational players loaded up on her at 5-1), but they were eager to book more proposition wagers if she made it to the weekend.

After shooting a 1-over par 71 in her first round last Thursday, Sorenstam shot 74 on Friday to miss the cut. Interestingly, her first-round score was well under the total of 76 to 77 1/2, depending on where you bet. But after seeing how well she managed the course on Thursday, oddsmakers lowered her total on Friday to 73 or 73 1/2, and the over was the winning play. That just shows how bookmakers adjust to stay one step ahead of most bettors.

Bookmakers also escaped losses when they kept most of the money wagered on such props as Sorenstam shooting a round in the 60's (it opened at 10-1 at Caesars and was bet down to 9-2) and finishing in the top 25 (opened at 13-1 and bet down to 8-1).

Chuck Esposito, the chief oddsmaker at Caesars and who was right on last fall in making the eighth game of the Cowboys' season as the even-money favorite for when Emmitt Smith would break Walter Payton's NFL career rushing record, also nailed Sorenstam's two-round score by making "4 to 6 over par" the 9-5 favorite back in February when she announced she would be playing in the tournament. She finished 5 over. Most bettors were taking the much bigger prices on her shooting under par ("10 to 12 under" was bet down from 200-1 to 75-1, "7 to 9 under" went from 150-1 to 22-1, "4 to 6 under" plunged from 50-1 to 12-1), so the winning favorite was raised to 3-1.

As pretty much an afterthought except for those with tickets on other golfers, The Colonial continued without Sorenstam and the masses who just watched to see how she would fare. Kenny Perry won the tournament as a 60-1 longshot.

Two Sunday drives

It wouldn't be a Memorial Day weekend without the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600.

As the sixth choice in the Indy 500 betting at 10-1, Gil de Ferran held off fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves - who was going for an unprecedented third straight victory at The Brickyard. With Tony Kanaan third, Brazilian drivers finished 1-2-3 and made a mockery of a prop bet at Station Casinos that pitted 28 drivers from the rest of the world at -160 and five Brazilians at +130. If form holds, those Indy-driving Brazilians will probably have to be favored next year.

Six was again the magic number as Jimmie Johnson, the co-sixth choice at 10-1, won the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 at Lowes Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Robby Gordon drove in both races and Station Casinos set the over/under on his combined finish at 27 1/2. His gearbox broke late in the Indy 500 and he finished 22nd, followed by a 17th-place finish in North Carolina.

Smaller sports can pay off, too

The betting menu is exceptionally varied at this time of year (and I haven't even touched on baseball, the French Open, which began Monday, or even horse racing, with Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid looming). The WNBA also began its season this past week, and the Arena Football League playoffs began Saturday and Sunday. For a bettor who is willing to put in the work to handicap the minor sports, there are profits to be made.

Through Monday, seven WNBA games had been played with the favorite winning four, underdogs covering two, and one push. Of the four games that have moved off their opening number, bettors (and you have to think there's more wiseguy money on these games than from casual fans) were on the winning side of three of them. The over got off to a 5-2 start and bettors were 5-1 on those line moves.

In the Arena League playoffs, the four wild-card games last weekend were split with favorites and dogs covering two apiece (and both dogs winning outright). Three of the four games stayed under the closing total, and the one over barely exceeded its total of 108 1/2 as Detroit beat Grand Rapids, 55-54.