04/19/2006 11:00PM

NBA playoffs provide fertile betting ground

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The NHL and NBA playoffs start this weekend, and people who haven't been following these winter sports daily will start watching more games and wagering more money.

It's not a unique phenomenon. We see it with March Madness when people who don't know George Mason from Curious George start betting the games. Even football, the most popular betting sport in this country, has additional bettors once the playoffs start, leading up to the ultimate betting game, the Super Bowl. And right down the line.

It's can be tough for fair-weather fans to jump into the pools and try to beat all the sharks, but sports radio host John Kelly says the format of the opening round gives bettors a fighting chance.

"The way the schedule is laid out," Kelly said, "there are four NBA games apiece on Saturday and Sunday and they don't overlap, so you can watch them back-to-back-to-back-to-back and really go to school on their rosters and playing styles. You can really take an inventory of the league. I'll be glued to the TV set. It's a glorious time for an NBA fan."

On Saturday, Washington is at Cleveland at 3 p.m. Eastern on ABC; all other games are on ESPN - Sacramento at San Antonio at 5:30 p.m., Chicago at Miami at 8, and Denver at the Los Angeles Clippers at 10:30.

On Sunday, Indiana visits New Jersey at 1 p.m., the L.A. Lakers at Phoenix at 3:30, Milwaukee at Detroit at 7, and Memphis at Dallas at 9:30.

The playoffs are also easier to follow because, Kelly said, you can "get rid of all the other nonsense" of the non-playoff teams and just concentrate on the 16 remaining teams.

"There's no question that every team is playing to win now," Kelly said. "The last few weeks have been like Week 16 or 17 in the NFL."

The wackiest development was Denver winning the Northwest Division of the Western Conference and receiving the No. 3 seed, even though the Nuggets have the worst record of the eight playoff teams in the conference. As a result, Denver will not have home-court advantage in any series. Oddsmakers weren't fooled by the Nuggets' No. 3 seed as they made the Clippers a 5-point favorite in Sunday's opener and a -160 favorite (risk $1.60 for every $1 you want to win) to win the best-of-seven series. All of the other higher seeds are solid favorites to win their series, topped by the Pistons being -5000 (risk $50 to win $1) vs. the Bucks.

Kelly points out that with the best-of-seven format, the cream usually rises to the top and there are fewer upsets in the NBA postseason than in other sports. The playoffs are also different in regards to player rotation.

"The way each round of the playoffs is stretched out up to 15 days, depth is very overrated," Kelly said. "During the regular season, teams sometimes play four games in five nights, so [in the playoffs] you're going to see most teams' starters playing 40 minutes. With Detroit, if you try to analyze anything past the starting five, you're wasting your time."

Kelly gives the Wizards, who beat the Bulls in the first round last year, a chance to knock off the Cavaliers. When series odds were put up late Thursday morning, the Wizards were offered at +180 (win $1.80 for every $1 wagered). I look at the Lakers having a shot at +300 vs. the Suns.

NHL playoffs also under way

The NHL playoffs, slated to open Friday night with four series and another four starting Saturday, pretty much does the same thing though some of the games will be played simultaneously. But if you're in a sports book or have multiple TV's at home, you can still see all the action.

The series that opened Friday were Tampa Bay at Ottawa, Edmonton at Detroit, San Jose at Nashville, and Anaheim at Calgary. The NHL also has a case of a lower-seeded team being favored, as San Jose is a-120 favorite in the opener and -160 for its series vs. Nashville.

The series starting Saturday are the New York Rangers at New Jersey, Colorado at Dallas, Montreal at Carolina, and Philadelphia at Buffalo. The home teams are all favored in the opening games and the series. I like the Flyers, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, to pull off a minor upset over the Sabres at +120 with their one-two punch at goalie - veteran Robert Esche starting and rookie Antero Niittymaki waiting in the wings.

Can Byrd keep title?

Also on Saturday, Chris Byrd is putting his IBF heavyweight title belt on the line vs. Wladimir Klitschko in Manheim, Germany. Klitschko, the Russian-born fighter who became a star in Germany along with his brother, Vitaly, and will undoubtedly have the crowd in his corner, is a decided 1-3 favorite with the over/under for the 12-round fight set at 10 1/2 rounds.

These two met in 2000 with Klitschko dominating the fight, including knocking Byrd down twice. But since then Byrd has won nine straight bouts and Klitschko had been knocked down nine times in his last seven times in the ring.

The pay-per-view telecast begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. It will then be replayed at 10 p.m. on both the East and West Coast, so if you're out Saturday night and happen to see the fight being shown, don't get suckered into a bet.

Nextel Cup circuit rises in Phoenix

Last week, the good ol' boys of Nascar put their engines on idle for an off week, but they return to the track on Sunday for the Subway Fresh 500 Nextel Cup race at Phoenix International Speedway. Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are the co-favorites at Station Casinos with Greg Biffle at 8-1 and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won this race in 2003 and 2004, at 10-1.