Durant, Thunder strong enough to survive West

Only the strongest survive in the NBA playoffs, so it might surprise some to see Kevin Durant carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to a position of dominance.

At a predraft camp four years ago, Durant was viewed as an exciting prospect with an asterisk. Maybe he was too weak and feeble to withstand the physical pounding of a marathon season, a theory formed after he failed to bench press 185 pounds.

The league’s most explosive scorers don’t need to be power lifters in training for the “World’s Strongest Man” competition. If that were the case, Magnus ver Magnusson would have been a top draft pick.

Durant was drafted No. 2 by Seattle, the franchise relocated the next year, Durant developed into the league’s scoring champ and Oklahoma City is now a legitimate NBA title contender.

As the Thunder rolls through the first round of the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers continue to stumble. The Lakers, after regaining believers by whipping New Orleans in Game 3, took a step back Sunday night by falling 93-88 to the Hornets.

“It remains to be seen what the Lakers are doing. Did they right the ship? I don’t know,” M Resort sports book director Mike Colbert said. “The Hornets are weak. We’ll see how the Lakers progress the more the playoffs go. I still think Oklahoma City is the best in the West.”

Underdogs are 21-8-1 against the spread in the playoffs. The Lakers (1-3 ATS) were 5½-point favorites over the Hornets, and Colbert said some sharp action showed on the underdog. The smartest money has been bet under the totals, because that’s where all eight games stayed Saturday and Sunday.

“These playoff games become more half-court oriented, and there’s not much transition going on in any of these games,” said handicapper Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet and VegasInsider.com.

Marshall, who labeled the Thunder the “team to beat” in the West, recommends betting Oklahoma City as an underdog of 3 to 3½ points at Denver today.

The Thunder, at odds as high as 8-1 to win the conference before the playoffs, lead the Nuggets 3-0 after winning 97-94 on Saturday.

“It showed me a lot. It showed the Thunder can win on the road,” said Colbert, who’s posting 10 to 12 propositions on each playoff game at the Cantor Gaming books.

The Boston Celtics, the only favored team to win Sunday, finished off a four-game sweep of the New York Knicks. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce shredded the nets again, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo showed their toughness and Doc Rivers took Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni to school. But are the Celtics of old really back?

Boston is waiting for a semifinal series with Miami, once the Heat finish off Philadelphia. Colbert said Miami, with home-court advantage, should be about a minus-200 favorite over the Celtics, but the series price could open a little lower.

“I don’t really think too much of Boston,” Colbert said. “Not that the Knicks should have won both games (in Boston), but they could have won both, and once they didn’t win either, that was it.

“The Knicks don’t play any defense. Allen and Pierce are just standing wide open getting shots. It will be a decent series, but I expect Miami to beat Boston. I still think the Heat are the class of the East.”

Heavy series favorites Orlando and San Antonio are on the ropes. And, suddenly, there’s no doubt Durant, who now benches more than 300 pounds, is strong enough to stand up to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

n BOTTOM LINES — UNLV football is never a hot topic in April, but here’s a question to debate: Will the Rebels, 2-11 in Bobby Hauck’s first season as coach, double their win total in Hauck’s second season?

Colbert recently posted UNLV’s regular-season win total at 3 (under minus-115, over minus-105). The Rebels play 12 games, and one against Southern Utah should be an easy victory.

“We had a sharp guy come in and he said he liked it under,” Colbert said. “He said, ‘I think they’re more likely to win two than four.’ “

The Rebels will be big underdogs in most of their seven road games — Wisconsin, Washington State, UNR, Wyoming, New Mexico, Air Force and Texas Christian — but two or three are winnable.

Of UNLV’s other home opponents — Hawaii, Colorado State, Boise State and San Diego State — only Colorado State appears beatable.

I expect the Rebels to win three, but I also suspect Hauck might have a trick up his sleeve. An ‘over’ wager should at least push.

“You’re gambling on the coach. I don’t think they can win more than four,” said Colbert, adding “nothing significant” has been bet on or against the Rebels.

The NFL is always a hot topic. The league is in the midst of a lockout but it has a schedule and is about to stage a draft, so the Las Vegas Hilton just opened lines for Week 1 of the regular season. It’s never too soon to think ahead.

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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