02/11/2002 1:00AM

Nets the big surprise at halfway mark


The playoff run begins this week as the NBA heads into the second half of its season after Sunday's All-Star Game. Some teams are looking to improve their seeding and get home-court advantage, while others are just trying to sneak into the elite eight of each conference.

A look at the future book odds paints a clear picture of which teams are exceeding expectations this season and which ones are underachieving.

The Lakers, despite their inconsistent play and Shaquille O'Neal's suspensions and injuries, are still solid favorites to win it all. Right now, Las Vegas Sports Consultants has them at even money, though many books in town have them at 1-2 or 3-5 because they have taken so much action on them. LVSC opened the Lakers at 7-5 last summer.

The biggest surprise this season has to be the Nets, who opened at 100-1 but are now 7-1 after posting the best record in the Eastern Conference at 32-15 behind the leadership of Jason Kidd, acquired in the offseason from the Suns.

The Kings, who actually lead the Lakers by 2 1/2 games with an NBA-best record of 37-12, have had their odds dropped from 12-1 to 5-1 and are seen as the top threat to the Lakers. The Mavericks, who opened at 15-1, and the Timberwolves, who opened at 20-1, have both emerged as contenders in the West at 8-1.

The Spurs, 76ers, and Bucks are next at 12-1. The Spurs were the 6-1 second choice when the opening odds came out, but their odds have risen to 12-1 with their inconsistent play. The 76ers, who played the Lakers in the Finals last June, are another team that has struggled with their high expectations, opening at 8-1 and rising to 12-1.

But neither of those teams have fallen as far as the Trail Blazers and the Knicks. The Blazers opened as the fourth choice at 10-1 and are now 35-1. They appeared to have straightened out their problems, but then lost their last two games before the break. The Knicks, who opened at 10-1 and are now 40-1, have a record of 19-28 and are five games behind the eighth-place team in the East.

LVSC was criticized last summer and fall for not releasing odds on the Wizards because of the uncertainty of Michael Jordan's return. When he did come back, LVSC made the Wizards a seemingly unrealistically low 15-1. That doesn't seem so out of whack now with the Wizards boasting a 26-21 record and on pace to make the playoffs. They are now 20-1.

NBA All-Stars go over the top

Sunday's NBA All-Star Game didn't generate an overwhelming handle in Las Vegas, but there was enough betting to move the over/under from an opening of 255 or 255 1/2 points down to a closing total of 252 1/2 or 253 around town. Those under bettors were feeling great as scoring slowed down in the third quarter. But then the downpour of three-pointers started (an All-Star Game record of 23 were made), including five in a row at one point.

Even then, as the clock was winding down it looked like the under bettors would still get the best of the bookmakers. A basket by the East made it 133-120, however, and then the West's Steve Francis, who was 0-for-7 from the field at the time, buried a long jumper instead of dribbling out the clock. That made the final 135-120 and buried those holding tickets on the under.

Bettors fared better on the West, which opened as a 1-point favorite and was bet up to 2 at most books.

Over bettors almost suffered a similar bad beat in Saturday's Pro Bowl. The total opened at 44 and was bet up to 45 1/2 at some books. The over looked like a cinch when the NFC scored a TD and kicked a field goal in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the game. The AFC then scored three unanswered touchdowns to take a 21-13 lead by the end of the first quarter. At halftime, the AFC was 28-16 and over bettors needed just one score in the second half to cash their tickets. Amazingly, neither team scored in third quarter, but then the NFC's offense finally got moving with Donovan McNabb at QB and put the game over with 8:12 left.

The AFC went on to win outright 38-30 as a 4-point underdog. Bettors were on the losing end of that line move as the NFC had opened as a 3-point favorite.

Sluggers face off for ESPN

Also on Saturday, the Big League Challenge home run hitting contest took place at Cashman Field in Las Vegas. The competition was taped for airing on ESPN and ESPN2 starting on March 23. If you want to place a sneaky wager at a bar or with friends, here are the results:

Quarterfinals: Jim Thome (Indians) defeated Shawn Green (Dodgers) 11-2; Rafael Palmeiro (Rangers) defeated Todd Helton (Rockies) 5-2; Troy Glaus (Angels) defeated Barry Bonds (Giants) 10-3; Luis Gonzalez (Diamondbacks) defeated Richie Sexon (Brewers) 4-1.

Semifinals: Glaus defeated Thome 5-3; Gonzalez defeated Palmeiro 2-1 (six innings).

Finals: Glaus defeated Gonzalez 8-6 (eight innings).

Glaus was the No. 8 seed in the field - that's why he had to face Bonds in the first round. The wind was blowing out at that time and Glaus upset Bonds. Later, the wind was blowing in, but Glaus still managed to hit at least five homers in each matchup to take the title.