No Kidding

Jun 4, 2002 12:55 PM

The NBA Finals start this Wednesday with the two time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers opposing the "upstart" New Jersey Nets. The Nets are upstarts in the sense that they came from nowhere last season to make the playoffs this season.

New Jersey finished 26-56 in 2000-2001 and were they to finish with a .500 record this season the Nets would have had a successful season. But the Nets turned their record around, improving by 26 games to go 52-30 and leading the Eastern Conference virtually wire to wire.

The Nets defended their top conference seed, getting their stiffest test in the opening round when a veteran Indiana team took them to a full five games.

The Nets stung Charlotte in five games and Boston in six to play in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. New Jersey is a $5.50 underdog to upset the Lakers in the series and a 7½ point dog in Game 1 Wednesday at Staples Center.

It was a close race for league MVP between San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and the Nets’ Jason Kidd. Duncan had the better overall stats and was the winner but a very strong case can be made that Kidd was more valuable.

Sure, New Jersey got solid contributions from other guys on the roster, including rookie Richard Jefferson and veteran Lucious Harris, but Kidd was the "x" factor. You do not see 26 game improvements in the NBA on a regular basis.

The Lakers are solid 8-1 favorites to win a third straight NBA title. The tandem of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal anchors a team that has gotten solid efforts from guys who play in the shadows of the two superstars.

In winning Game 7 at Sacramento the Lakers got double-doubles from both Kobe and Shaq. But Robert Horry and Rick Fox also contributed double-digit points and double-digit rebounds.

The five Lakers starters scored 107 of the team’s 112 points, showing that they were able to play with great intensity from start to finish. But there are some concerns. After all, had Sacramento not hit just 16 of 30 free throws in that game the Kings might well be playing for the title.

Los Angeles has been vulnerable during the playoffs and has struggled despite winning 11 of 15 playoff games. Of those 11 wins, eight came by six points or less. The largest margin of victory in the playoffs has been just 10 points. They’ve covered just four of 11 playoff games and three of those covers came as favorites.

The Nets and Lakers traded home victories this season with the Lakers winning by nine points at home in early March and the Nets winning by a deuce in the rematch in early April.

The Lakers should defeat New Jersey to win a third straight title but the games may be more competitive than many expect.

The format is 2-3-2 meaning that after hosting the first two games the Lakers will be on the road for three straight before returning home for possible Game 6 and 7.

Earlier it appeared that the Lakers would need no more than five games to defeat whichever team came out of the East. But given the way these playoffs have unfolded for Los Angeles, with 13 of 15 games decided by eight points or less, the Lakers might lose more than just one game.

The selection here is for Los Angeles to wrap up the series back at home in Game 6. New Jersey might win one of the two games in Los Angeles and should win at least once at home.

In betting the series the Nets are worth taking as underdogs in the first two games. In fact, New Jersey should be played when getting at least six points and the Lakers should not be backed when laying more than three.

This suggests that the Lakers might be worth a play on the road if they are not too heavily favored. The most likely scenario is for the Lakers to be up 2-0 and favored in Game 3 at New Jersey. The Lakers could be cheaply priced at the Meadowlands and, were they to be up 2-1, might be favored by a little less in Game 4.