Bet Lakers until they lose

May 21, 2002 11:14 AM

The NBA’s Final Four is underway with the Lakers having recaptured the home court advantage by winning the opening game of their series at Sacramento.

It does not happen often, and it’s easy to explain after the fact, but there was an outstanding play in that game from a handicapping perspective. And a play that might well occur if there is a Game 5 back in Sacramento.

The Kings, a slight home favorite in Game 1, were similarly priced in Monday night’s second contest at Arco Arena despite the Lakers having won 12 straight road playoff games.

Many observers made a case for playing Sacramento in the opening game for such reasons as gaining a psychological edge, the impact of the crowd, etc. But those factors overlook backing a road underdog with a track record for winning away from home.

Moreover, L.A. is the two time defending champion, with arguably two of the top five players in the game (Shaq and Kobe) and a 7-1 playoff record this year. Until the Lakers lose on the road, the play must be Los Angeles. The case becomes stronger considering the injury to Peja Stojakovic.

Keep this in mind if the Lakers happen to be underdogs at Sacramento if a Game 5 is necessary.

Looking to how the balance of the series may unfold there should be opportunities to back the Kings when playing in Los Angeles. The Lakers have fared poorly in this series when favored.

Prior to the opening game against Sacramento, the Lakers were favored in all seven playoff games. Los Angeles covered just once , although virtually every one of those non-covers were within a basket of being pointspread wins.

Los Angeles is doing just enough to win and not blowing teams out. Maybe it’s to conserve the strength of Shaquille O’Neal, who has been hampered by injuries all season. The Lakers have been especially strong in the fourth quarter of their playoff games.

Los Angeles has trailed in many of these games after three quarters, but turns up the pressure defensively and relies on Kobe Bryant to come up big at the end. If the Lakers are favored by at least five points over Sacramento in games at Staples Center, the road underdog Kings become an attractive play in Games 3 and 4.

Still, it should not be a surprise if the Lakers win this series in six or less. A four game sweep is a very real possibility even if the Kings are competitive in the losses.

The Eastern Conference finals figure to be much more competitive and should last at least six games, possibly the full seven. New Jersey held serve in Game 1 on Sunday, leading virtually wire to wire and holding off a late Boston rally.

The Nets’ Jason Kidd is showing why he was a legitimate MVP candidate, making the big plays at key times. That’s what MVP players do ”” raise their level of play when a game is on the line and usually making the winning play. Boston’s Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker got their points but Kidd’s triple double and New Jersey’s balanced scoring was the difference.

This series might well follow the zig-zag theory mentioned several weeks ago that holds you should back the straight-up loser of Game 1 in the next contest against the points, the loser of Game 2 in Game 3, etc. Boston and New Jersey appear fairly evenly matched and we might well see these teams trade victories and set up a decisive Game 7 next weekend.

0-1 ”” Paul Pierce hurt over loss.

Playoff basketball involves a series of adjustments and the usual line of thinking holds that the loser makes the adjustments while the winner continues to do what worked last. Since both New Jersey and Boston have vulnerabilities, and the capabilities to exploit them, the constant series of adjustments suggests a back and forth series.

New Jersey was a small favorite to win the series, largely based on holding the home court advantage. Boston did win the final three of four games during the regular season. The call here last week was for Boston to win in six games and there’s no reason to feel differently despite needing the Celtics to win four of the next five.

Obviously winning Game 2 is a key. If the Celtics can return home tied 1-1, they’ll hold the edge. If New Jersey takes to the road up 2-0, Boston becomes a very solid play in Game 3.