05/01/2003 11:00PM

It's risky to bet against Lakers


With the exception of any game sevens that might be played Sunday (depending on Friday night's results), the NBA playoffs are moving into the second round.

This is the round that a lot of fans have been waiting for as we get rid of the pretenders and just focus on the top four contenders in the Western Conference (barring a major upset of the Mavericks by the Trail Blazers). The top-seeded Spurs have already advanced and will face the three-time defending champion Lakers, who were actually the No. 5 seed in the West but were heavily favored to knock off the Timberwolves, which they did four games to two.

Again, the Lakers are favored on the series price as they are a -160 favorite (bet $1.60 for every $1 you want to win) in their best-of-seven series vs. the Spurs, who are at +140 (bet $1 to win $1.40, or 7-5 odds for those who think in those terms). Some bettors are seeing value on the Spurs since they swept the season series, 4-0, vs. the Lakers, but I wouldn't recommend it. Shaq, Kobe, & Co. have shown they can flip on the switch at playoff time, just like the Bulls did for coach Phil Jackson in the 1990's.

The Kings disposed of Malone, Stockton, and the Jazz on Wednesday night and have been awaiting the Mavericks for their marquee matchup.

In the East, the Nets have already advanced, as expected, and will face the Celtics, who knocked off the top-seeded Pacers in six games.

Bettors have already bet the Celtics down from +300 to +250, and I agree they're a livelier dog. The other Eastern Conference semifinal was also undecided heading into the weekend.

After starting the postseason 5-1 with my individual game selections, I stumbled a little bit on Wednesday as the Pistons easily covered the 6-point spread in a 98-67 win over the Magic, but the Mavericks lost outright 103-99 as an 8 1/2-point favorite over the Trail Blazers, leaving my record at 6-2 (75 percent).

The "zig-zag theory" or "loser-of-the-last" theory - in which you bet the straight-up loser of the previous game to cover the spread in the next contest - also cooled off slightly. After sweeping both games last Monday to improve to 16-7 with one push, the theory treaded water at 2-2 on the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday cards to slip to 22-13 (still a healthy 63 percent) with one push.

Without knowing the outcome of Friday's games, there's no way to pick Sunday's games, but lines were already up for the two second-round matchups. The Lakers, despite being the series favorite, are a 2 1/2-point underdog in game 1 at San Antonio. They know how important it is to set the tone early, especially when opening on the road, and should get the job done right out of the gate.

I will also take the Celtics, who are getting 7 1/2 points in game 1 at New Jersey. That's just too many points when you consider that there's not much difference talent-wise in the East and how Paul Pierce can take over a game for Boston. The Nets may very well win the game, but the Celtics should at least keep it close and stay within the number.

Feeling chipper

The Preakness version of commemorative chips, (another set of $2.50, $5, $25, and $100 chips) will be distributed starting at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Palms. The Belmont chips are scheduled to be released May 22, with the Triple Crown set (which also includes a $1 chip) on June 5.

* Steve Schirripa is well-known around Las Vegas from his days as the Riviera's entertainment director, but you might know him better as Bobby Bacala on the HBO hit "The Sopranos." Well, his former employer hasn't forgotten him as they're releasing a chip with Schirripa's mug shot on it this Friday.

- Horses on chips, people on chips . . . hey, why not a casino? The Rampart Casino at the Resort at Summerlin just marked its first anniversary under its current ownership and released a $5 chip commemorating the event. Considering all the name changes the property has undergone since it opened in July 1999, that is something to celebrate.

Ever-evolving casino landscape

Coast Casinos is looking to expand - again. The company, run by Michael Gaughan, began with the Barbary Coast on the Strip and expanded to include the off-Strip Gold Coast, The Orleans (another just-off-the-Strip property that has already expanded with 586 rooms added last August and the Orleans Arena debuting later this month), and the Suncoast in the western suburbs. Now, Coast will be breaking ground early next year on its newest project, the Southcoast, to be located on the south end of the Strip near the Silverton. It is expected to open in mid-2005.

- Thursday is the scheduled opening of the newest casino in southern Nevada, the Casino MonteLago at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Las Vegas, a short drive east of the Strip. The casino will actually be run by Native American-owned CIRI Lakeside Gaming Investors LLC.