Heat title no longer foregone conclusion


Everything is coming so easily for LeBron James. When he records a triple-double, it seems routine. When the pressure intensifies late in a playoff game, he now shines in the spotlight instead of shrinking in it.

James never has been better. The Miami Heat, on the other hand, are beginning to appear a little more vulnerable.

If not for the opposition rolling out the red carpet and offering James a clear path to the basket for a layup drill, the Heat could be in a lot of trouble.

The script for the NBA postseason set up as a fox-in-the-henhouse tale, with Miami the prohibitive favorite. But the Heat’s trip through the Eastern Conference, in a semifinal against Chicago and now in the finals against Indiana, is revealing a flawed favorite.

Dwyane Wade, even a half-step slower, still is the ideal wingman for James, but I’m not the only one cooling on the idea that the Heat are a cinch to win their second straight title.

“I think the Heat have been exposed. It’s a two-headed monster with LeBron and Wade,” Golden Nugget sports book director Tony Miller said. “If it ends up with San Antonio and Miami in the Finals, I know the Heat will be the favorite, but I’m on the Spurs.

“But the Heat need to get by the Pacers first, and I don’t think it’s going to be an easy series. I think it’s going seven games. It’s the NBA, and anything can happen.”

It’s too soon to schedule the autopsy for the Pacers, though they dug a hole Wednesday by allowing James to cruise in for a layup as time expired.

James beat Paul George off the dribble, and the Heat beat Indiana 103-102 in overtime of the series opener. For an underdog afforded little margin for error, it was a huge mistake.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel opted to have center Roy Hibbert sit the bench instead of defend the rim. And instead of forcing James to win the game by hitting a jumper, George played him too aggressively, and the rest is history.

James became the first in playoff history to record a triple-double (30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and a buzzer-beating winner in the same game.

“That was just a devastating loss,” said Wes Reynolds, a handicapper from Indianapolis who posts free plays on Twitter @WesReynolds1. “The Pacers might be able to recover. I don’t think they are going to get swept. Stylistically speaking, the Pacers match up better with Miami than anybody.”

That much is true, and that’s why I see the series going six games. Indiana’s size, with Hibbert and David West, and its ability to play a slow-down style expose the Heat’s weaknesses.

Aside from his defensive blunder, George, the 10th pick of the 2010 draft after playing two years at Fresno State, scored 27 points Wednesday and was the second-best player on the floor.

After a one-week layoff, Miami also dropped the opener against the Bulls and responded with a 37-point victory two days later. The difference is Chicago was severely handicapped by injuries, and the Pacers’ only shortcoming is their thin bench.

“In the first game of each series, Miami just can’t seem to get into a rhythm,” said handicapper Lee Sterling (ParamountSports.com) of Miami. “It’s partially the layoff. But Wade and LeBron are rhythm players, and in the playoffs, you’re not going to be allowed to run. The Pacers are going to play grind-it-out games.”

Miami was an 8-point favorite in the opener and is laying 7 in today’s Game 2, with early money showing on the underdog. The total has dipped two points to 180½, indicating sharp bettors believe the Pacers are going to dictate the pace.

Sterling said he expects the Heat to play at a higher level. In Game 1, Chris Bosh grabbed just two rebounds in 36 minutes, while reserves Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole combined to shoot 2-for-16.

“The Pacers were shellshocked. It’s very tough for a road team to come in and give two really good efforts,” Sterling said. “I think the Heat can play a lot better.”

Regardless of what unfolds today in an unpredictable situation, I foresee line value with the Pacers when the series goes to Indiana.

The West finals shift to Memphis on Saturday, and the Spurs, up 2-0, are minus-500 on the adjusted series price after closing minus-140. For those who bet San Antonio before the series, this is a good time to hedge and take plus-400.

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will get the Grizzlies, 11-2 against the spread in the playoffs, back into it by winning Game 3.

I still like the Spurs to emerge from the West, and I’m warming up to the notion they can take down the Heat, who are showing surprising flaws for a team that’s a 1-4 favorite to win the title.

■ BOTTOM LINES — A big weekend is fast approaching for motor sports bettors, and Micah Roberts (VegasInsider.com) recommends Kyle Busch at 6-1 odds to win the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday. ... Miller is posting opening lines on 250 college football games at the Golden Nugget on June 7.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.