Lakers, Cavs cut above

It’s little surprise that the NBA’s two best and most popular players are on the teams most favored to win the league championship.

The Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, paced by LeBron James, are the clear favorites in Las Vegas sports books to rule the NBA playoffs, which begin today. MGM Mirage properties have the Lakers at 1-2 to win the title and the Cavs at 5-6.

The defending champion Boston Celtics, who could be without All-Star forward Kevin Garnett for the entire postseason, are next at 11-5. The longest shot among the 16 playoff teams is the Philadelphia 76ers at 80-1.

“It’s all about the billboard,” Jay Rood, MGM Mirage’s director of race and sports, said of the popularity of the Lakers and Cavaliers with the public. “We’ll get more action on their games than any other.”

The Lakers, the top seed in the Western Conference and second overall, will face the Utah Jazz, the No. 8 West seed. But Rood said Utah is a potentially dangerous opponent for the Lakers.

“There’s a lot of history there between these two teams,” he said. “I don’t think the seeding is a factor in the West because it’s so competitive.”

The Lakers are minus-2,500 to win the best-of-7 series against the Jazz after opening at minus-2,000. The Cavaliers, seeded first in the Eastern Conference and overall, are minus-4,000 against the Detroit Pistons.

“You don’t normally see the Pistons as a 20-1 underdog in a series, but Cleveland has earned the right to be a big favorite,” Rood said.

Rood said Garnett’s knee injury wasn’t much of a factor in setting a line for Boston’s series against the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics are minus-600.

“They’ve been playing without him for a while anyway, so it’s not that big of an adjustment,” Rood said. “At this point I’m not going to raise them with (Garnett) out.”

Rood said he thinks two Western Conference matchups — Denver-New Orleans and San Antonio-Dallas — are especially intriguing.

The second-seeded Nuggets are minus-230 to eliminate the Hornets, but Rood said he thinks New Orleans is a live underdog.

“Denver is not as defensive-oriented as some teams, and you can’t just suddenly decide you’re going to play defense once the playoffs start,” he said. “New Orleans is a better defensive team, and they’re like a car that is missing a cylinder. If they start firing on all cylinders, they can be dangerous.”

The No. 3 Spurs are minus-135 against the Mavericks, but San Antonio will be without injured guard Manu Ginobili.

“He’s a key for the Spurs,” Rood said. “Plus, Dallas has played well down the stretch, and they can create some matchup problems for San Antonio.”

Rood’s other concern is the Portland Trail Blazers, who were 50-1 at the start of the season to win the title. On the eve of their series with the Houston Rockets, they’re 8-1.

“We’ve got some risk with Portland, so I’m a big Rockets fan this week,” Rood said.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ or 702-387-2913.

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