04/29/2002 12:00AM

Lakers backers get three bad beats

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Last year, the Lakers tore through the NBA playoffs, winning 15 of their 16 games and covering 12 of them. Bettors rode the wave and did very well against bookmakers in Las Vegas.

This postseason, the Lakers swept their first-round series against the Trail Blazers, but bettors aren't smiling. The Lakers failed to cover all three games - and all three can be called bad beats.

On April 21, the Lakers were 8 1/2-point home favorites and won 95-87. On Thursday, the Lakers were favored by 7 1/2 points and won 103-96.

But neither of those non-covers were as devastating to Laker backers as Sunday's Game 3 at the Rose Garden in Portland.

After the Lakers grabbed a 2-0 series lead on Thursday night, the MGM-Mirage properties and the Stardust both opened the Lakers as 1 1/2-point favorites, while Caesars Palace and the Park Place Entertainment properties made the Lakers a 1-point choice.

With the Lakers dominating the first two games and having won six straight playoff games against the Blazers, fans figured the defending champs would go to Portland and complete the sweep. Bettors didn't seem bothered by laying such a short price. Besides, they were asking the Lakers merely to win . . . as long as it was not by only 1 point.

With the better part of three days to bet, bettors kept pounding the Lakers, especially when the usual weekend drive-in traffic from California arrived. Bookmakers slowly adjusted the line to 2 and then to 2 1/2. The line even got moved to 3 at Caesars.

The money looked to be on the right side as the Lakers went on an 11-2 run before halftime to take a 50-42 lead. But then the Blazers rallied to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter, and seemed to take control. The Blazers led 89-84 with 39 seconds to play. But in a finish reminiscent of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals two years ago - in which the Blazers blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead - the Lakers outscored them 8-2 in those final 39 seconds to take a 92-91 lead on Robert Horry's 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play.

It looked like a certain loss for Lakers bettors, assuming the Blazers would take a last-second shot to either win or lose the game, but Horry stole the inbounds pass and was fouled with 0.9 remaining.

If Horry made his first free throw, the bettors who got in on Lakers -1 and -1 1/2 would win, and an awful lot of bettors would get refunds on Lakers -2. But Horry misfired on his first attempt. Laker bettors' worst fears were realized when Horry missed his second shot on purpose and the clock ran out for a 92-91 final and third straight Blazers cover.

More NBA playoff notes

Of the eight Game 3's played over the weekend, six road teams won straight up. Of course, that's not totally unexpected since the road teams were the higher seeds. However, road teams were only 3-3-2 against the spread.

Home faves were 0-2 over the weekend. The 76ers beat the Celtics 108-103 as a five-point home favorite to get a push, while the Magic and Timberwolves both lost outright.

Through the first week of playoffs, underdogs were 15-7-2 against the spread, while road teams were 13-9-2.

The Pistons, Kings, Hornets, and Nets were all going for series-clinching wins on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Celtics are 4-point dogs vs. the 76ers at Philadelphia, and the Spurs are 3-point road favorites over the Sonics in Seattle. I expect both road teams to get the job done.

NHL playoff notes

The under is still the way to go in the NHL playoffs, as 26 of the 44 games through Sunday had gone under the total.

The percentage of under games would be even higher if the last two games of the weekend - Saturday night's 6-4 win by the Red Wings against the Canucks and Sunday's 5-3 win by the Islanders against the Maple Leafs - hadn't sailed over their totals.

During the postseason, oddsmakers put up a lot of 4 1/2-point totals to entice bettors to take the over in games involving top goaltenders. Amazingly, in games with a total of 4 1/2, the under is a whopping 15-4.

Over bettors should not be scared off when the books put up a 5 1/2-point total, either. The over is 4-2 in those games. In all other games with a 5-point total, the under holds a slight 9-8 edge.

The Kings-Avalanche and Islanders-Maple Leafs series were going to decisive Game 7's on Monday and Tuesday. In addition, the Canadiens were positioned to wrap up a first-round upset of the Bruins on Monday night, or else play a Game 7 on Tuesday. The survivors will be at a decided disadvantage at the start of their next series.

Tournament players arrive

As part of the Kentucky Derby festivities, the Las Vegas Hilton and the Reno Hilton, Park Place sister properties, have separate handicapping tournaments this week.

If the Las Vegas Hilton is worried about the Reno Hilton's new tourney cannibalizing its entries, the fears are unfounded.

The LV Hilton's "Pick the Ponies" contest has closed entries at 200 (the maximum allowed) for the $500 buy-in contest that runs Wednesday through Friday. First place will be worth $38,000, with $19,000 for second, and payment down to 30th place. In addition, $5,000 in daily prizes is up for grabs each day.

The Reno Hilton's "Sting in the Spring" will run Thursday through Saturday, with entrants putting up $3,000 apiece and being bracketed like the NCAA tournament. The contestants who make the Final Four will compete on the Derby Day card.