Bettors’ Maverick attitude prevails

In the beginning, when LeBron James announced “The Decision” and relegated all other teams to pretenders for the NBA title, many feared the season would end with a celebration in Miami. And sure enough, we witnessed it Sunday.

The title trophy was hoisted by the Big Three — Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and “The Custodian.”

Truth tops fiction yet again. The Dallas Mavericks, underestimated underdogs, thoroughly beat the Heat 105-95 in Game 6, and Brian Cardinal won a championship before James.

“I’m not really a big NBA guy, but I watched more of this Finals series than I have in years,” Las Vegas Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “It was a very intriguing series, and as it progressed it was filled with a lot of drama.”

The lure of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and their superteam is what drew crowds in sports books. But as James shied from fourth-quarter spotlights and the Heat started to melt down, bettors became more attracted to Nowitzki and his pursuit of a defining moment.

James and Wade mocked a sick Nowitzki before Game 5, and bad acting and bad karma bit the superstar duo in the butt.

The money showed on the Mavericks, who opened as 6-point underdogs before the line closed as low as 4½ on Sunday, and Nowitzki and Terry made Miami pay.

“I was pleasantly surprised. The handle was really good. There was some smart money on the ‘dog,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books. “It was no Super Bowl Sunday, but … the people showed up and they bet.”

Vaccaro said bettors had “a love-hate relationship” with the Heat because of James’ arrogance. But there was respect for Miami, which opened as a minus-180 favorite in the NBA Finals.

The Mavericks, by comparison, opened last summer at 22-1 odds to win the championship, and those odds swelled to 32-1 at Lucky’s books in December. More than a few experts were predicting Dallas would fall to Portland in the first round of the playoffs.

“It was such a crazy year in the playoffs with the Lakers losing early,” said Kornegay, noting that support for Boston, Chicago, Miami and San Antonio far surpassed futures wagering on the Mavericks.

“Obviously, we did well on the futures. At the beginning of the playoffs, one of the best-case scenarios for us was Dallas to win. That rarely happens. In fact, that never happens.”

The Heat seemed to take a stranglehold on this series after winning Game 3 in Dallas and taking a 2-1 lead. The series price inflated to Miami minus-320. But the Mavericks reeled off three straight wins, and I’m not alone in saying I didn’t see it coming.

Nowitzki was forced to do too much by himself, and he needed scoring help. He got it from Terry, former UNLV star Shawn Marion and a supporting cast that worked together as a team.

“The media, especially ESPN, just buried the team that lost each game,” Kornegay said. “We heard the Mavs were done after Game 1, the Heat were in trouble after losing Game 2, and the Mavs just couldn’t match up with the Heat after Game 3. It was comical to follow that, and it affected the handle and the flow of betting patterns.

“One game the bettors were supporting the Heat, and the next game they were supporting the Mavs. But I know most people in the back of their minds thought the Heat would find a way to win.”

Nowitzki was the Most Valuable Player of the Finals, but Terry stole the spotlight in Game 6. Terry scored 27 points, easily topping his proposition for total points and rebounds of 17½ at the Hilton.

James’ prop for total points and rebounds was 33½, and again he was a disappointment with 21 points and four rebounds.

Eleven months after “The Decision,” the championship was determined by James’ failures under pressure and a young coach who was in over his head.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle made the proper adjustments. When he used a zone defense, James and Wade stopped attacking the rim. When he altered his starting lineup and bench rotation, the Heat had no response.

Vaccaro said the wagering handle for the NBA playoffs was “way up.” Much of that was due to the Heat.

James had a lot of fun creating hype, but the reality of his show is the joke was on him.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the “Las Vegas Sportsline” weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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