05/26/2005 12:00AM

Take deep breath, then dive in to pick Game 3 winners


The NBA playoffs have been going on for five weeks now.

Though players generally get a day or two off between games, the way the games have been staggered there has been rarely a day off for oddsmakers and handicappers.

After the second games in the conference finals series on Tuesday and Wednesday, oddsmakers and handicappers were finally given a break Thursday and Friday, so they could step back and analyze what they've seen.

Well, that's not entirely true. Oddsmakers still had to post lines for this Saturday's Spurs-Suns game and Sunday's Pistons-Heat matchup.

The Spurs, up 2-0 in their best-of-seven series after sweeping the first two games in Phoenix as underdogs, are a nearly universal 5 1/2-point favorite (both in Vegas and offshore) over the Suns, with the total ranging from 213 1/2 to 214 1/2. The total is an adjustment from the 207 in the first game and the 209 in the second game that was bet up to between 212 and 213 at most books, with both games ending up going over. The point spread is also interesting, because the Suns were favored by 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 in the first two games.

"The teams in these two series are pretty evenly matched overall," said Mike Seba, oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, pointing out that the differences in the line come from home-court advantage and situational factors. "In this case, if the Spurs were down 2-0 or had just gotten a split in Phoenix, you'd see the Spurs favored by 6 or more, but oddsmakers have to adjust downward with the Suns in a must-win situation."

Before the series, LVSC had the Spurs as a -120 favorite despite not having home-court advantage. As the Spurs head into Game 3 with a 2-0 edge, the line is now -1300 (risk $13 for every $1 you want to win), with the Suns offered at +900.

The Pistons-Heat series is getting to be more competitive after the teams split the first two games in Miami. Wednesday's game was one of those coin-flip affairs for bettors, as the Heat were favored by 4 to 4 1/2 points and were leading 90-86. Pistons backers had to feel confident with the ball in the closing seconds until Tayshaun Prince missed a 3-pointer and Miami's Dwayne Wade ended up with the ball. If he had dribbled out the clock, depending on what line bettors had, some Pistons bettors would have won and others would have pushed, but instead he went in for a dunk to make the final 92-86 and give a gift to Heat bettors. The total also landed on the closing total of 178, bailing out some over bettors.

For Sunday's Game 3, the Pistons opened as low as -4 at Caesars Palace, but the line was pretty much a consensus of Pistons -5 by noon Thursday with a total around 177 1/2.

Heading into Game 3, LVSC has the Pistons as -150 favorites to win the series with the Heat at +130 - basically a flip of the opening odds, in which LVSC recommended a line of Heat -150 (though LVSC had a caveat to its customers that that price was based on a healthy Shaquille O'Neal). Of course, with the split of the first two games, the Pistons have basically taken home-court advantage in what now amounts to a best-of-five series.

As for odds to win the NBA title, LVSC has the Spurs at 4-5, the Pistons at 9-5, the Heat at 2-1, and the Suns at 18-1.

Seba said that LVSC will release future odds for the 2006 season after the conference finals are set. He said not to expect much impact from this week's NBA draft lottery or even much adjustments after the draft itself.

"On the top end, you don't have the great players coming out," he said, adding that the worst teams have the top picks and usually have more than one hole to fill. "Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams might be the top two players taken, but they won't change their teams overnight."

Ladies have next

Some basketball bettors think they have the biggest edge early in the college basketball season before oddsmakers figure out which teams are strongest. Others like March Madness, with the influx of recreational gamblers affecting lines. Still others are eating up the NBA playoffs.

And there are even some that get excited about the WNBA. No, really.

John Kelly is one. He is the radio host of the "Stardust Line" and "Track Talk" shows, but he is also a bettor in his own right. And he sees an edge in handicapping sports that the public might overlook and that oddsmakers might not spend as much time analyzing, especially with their higher priorities being the NBA playoffs, everyday baseball, and gearing up for the football season.

"It's a rare case where you can say the bettors know more than the oddsmakers," Kelly said. "If you know how to watch the games and can pick apart the box scores, you can find an edge."

Kelly said a small group of professional bettors is betting the WNBA. The books - which typically have limits of $500, so no one's getting rich on this - are mostly booking either $5 bets or $500, with very little in between.

"It's a very efficient market," Kelly said. "That's shown in that the line moves win more often than other sports. You have to get your bets in early or you'll miss the best number. I certainly wouldn't want to be fading [betting against] the line moves like you can in some sports."

Kelly didn't offer a play for this weekend, but he said to keep an eye out for betting against the Los Angeles Sparks when they are a home favorite after a win. They're 7-21 against the spread the last two years in that spot. The Sparks play this Saturday at Charlotte before hosting San Antonio on Tuesday.

Kelly said the Detroit Shock are his dark-horse pick to win the WNBA title.

"They won the title two years ago, and after a disappointing season, Detroit could rebound," Kelly said. "I saw them at 10-1 last week, though I'm sure they're lower now that they've started the season 3-0."

As of Thursday, LVSC had the Shock as the fourth choice at 5-1, behind the Sparks at even money and the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun, each at 4-1.