04/18/2007 11:00PM

NBA playoff preview (for the bettor)


LAS VEGAS – The final days of the NBA regular season held quite a bit of drama, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls fighting for the coveted No. 2 seed and easier bracket draw in the Eastern Conference and the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers battling for the last berth in the Western Conference.

But when all was said and done on Wednesday night, none of that shuffling mattered when it came to updating the odds to win the NBA finals. Las Vegas Sports Consultants has the Dallas Mavericks as the 2-1 favorite, with the Phoenix Suns right behind at 3-1 and the San Antonio Spurs at 4-1. Despite any other storylines in the NBA this year, the Mavs and Suns have been the top two teams throughout with the Spurs in their rear-view mirror, and they remain there as the playoffs are set to start with four games on Saturday and another four on Sunday.

Showing the imbalance of power in the league, all three reside in the West, with the Detroit Pistons being the East's shortest-priced representative at 6-1 to win the title. The Cavs and Bulls are both 10-1 despite the Bulls falling all the way to a No. 5 seed and having to take on the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round. The Heat are 12-1, followed by the Houston Rockets at 15-1, Toronto Raptors at 25-1, Utah Jazz at 30-1, New Jersey Nets at 40-1, Denver Nuggets at 45-1, Orlando Magic at 50-1, the Warriors and Lakers both at 75-1, and the Wizards at 100-1.

Unlike other playoff previews you'll see, which show people predicting which team will win in how many games, this one is strictly from a betting perspective:

Eastern Conference

Pistons (1) vs. Magic (8): Orlando is an 8-point underdog in Saturday's opener and available at more than 10-1 to win the series, but as much as I love playing underdogs, I can't see any Magic upset here, even against the spread. The Pistons are the class of the series, and I'll just be watching this series to pick up tidbits for their next matchup vs. the Heat or Bulls.

Cavaliers (2) vs. Wizards (7): By virtue of picking up the No. 2 seed, the Cavs get to play the Wizards, who will not have Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler available, instead of the Heat. The Cavs are favored by 12 in Sunday's opener and -2500 (risk $25 for every $1 you want to profit) to win this series. I won't lay the big points with the Cavs, and the only time to look to play the Wizards would be in Games 3 or 4 at home.

Raptors (3) vs. Nets (6): These next two series hold a lot more intrigue than the first two. The Nets, who struggled with injuries all season, are getting healthy just in time, as evidenced by going 7-2 in their last nine games to finish the season at .500. They really showed something on Wednesday night with a dominating victory over a Bulls team that needed the win. I look for them to carry that momentum into the playoffs and keep up with the running Raptors. The series price of +140 (profit $1.40 for every $1 wagered) is a little short on the Nets, so I'll take them game by game, starting with +4o1/2 in Sunday's opener.

Heat (4) vs. Bulls (5): Most people are pointing to this as the best series of the first round, and with good reason. Both teams are better than their respective seeds; the Bulls were one win from a No. 2 seed, and the Heat are a No. 4 only because of the 23 games that Dwayne Wade missed. The defending champion Heat play the team that gave them the most problems in last year's playoffs, plus the Bulls have added Ben Wallace in the middle to harass Shaquille O'Neal. The Bulls have home-court advantage and are favored to win the series at -155, which is the lowest odds of any first-round matchup. With the teams so even, I'd look to take the underdog in each game, starting with the Heat +4 in Saturday's opener.

Western Conference

Mavericks (1) vs. Warriors (8): It was a good story, Golden State making it to the postseason after a 13-year drought, but the Warriors might not have anything left in the tank. They might also suffer from a "just happy to be here" mentality and get rolled by the Mavericks, who are 10-point favorites in Sunday's opener and -1700 to win the series. And it probably doesn't help that the Warriors completed a season sweep and kind of ran up the score against Dallas on Tuesday night in a 111-82 victory in which the Mavs rested most of their starters. It's not often a No. 1 seed has more of a revenge motivation than its foe, so I'm not stepping in front of that train.

Suns (2) vs. Lakers (7): The Lakers nearly knocked the Suns out in the first round last year, so there are some storylines developing for this rematch, primarily if Kobe Bryant can win as a one-man team. I wouldn't recommend a series bet on the Lakers even at the current 10-1 odds because the Suns are better than they were last year and the Lakers are worse, but the presence of Bryant makes me think they could win more games against the spread, starting with getting +10o1/2 in Sunday's opener.

Spurs (3) vs. Nuggets (6): Just like the 3-6 matchup in the East, this 3-6 matchup looks ripe for an upset. The teaming of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in Denver hasn't been as explosive as expected, but this could be the coming-out party and the Nuggets might be worth a flyer at 6-1 to win the series. It would be huge if they can steal a game in San Antonio either Sunday or Wednesday. The Nuggets are +8 1/2 for Sunday's opener, though a better bet might be to take them at +300 or higher on the money line in Game 1. If they win, pocket the profits; it they lose, bet them again in Game 2.

Jazz (4) vs. Rockets (5): Despite the higher-numbered seed, Houston has home court and looks poised to end Tracy McGrady's first-round drought (0-for-5 in his career). As much as I think they'll advance, I'm not going to lay the -240 series price or the -6 in Saturday's first game. I'll probably look to back the Rockets as a small dog in the games in Utah.