Lakers-Celtics not classic for all

Some like him, others loathe him, and it’s obvious he really loves himself. Kobe Bryant is the best player in basketball and also its most polarizing figure.

On the surface, this NBA Finals matchup appears close to perfect. Bryant leads the flashy Los Angeles Lakers against their hated rivals, the blue-collar Boston Celtics.

One might presume this series should draw crowds of gamblers to Las Vegas sports books. Bettors are taking sides, and the media buildup is all about fans from coast to coast being frenzied with anticipation.

It’s turn-back-the-clock time to the NBA’s good old days. We’re seeing the faded clips of Bill Russell and Jerry West, of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The hype is not contrived.

But Jimmy Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books, said he expects the wagering handle to be only “fair to above average.”

That’s hard to believe, and maybe sad but true. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, a Celtics-Lakers duel recalls classic memories. Bird and Magic were more fascinating than Mr. Roarke, his miniature sidekick, Tattoo, and that mysterious show “Fantasy Island.”

Vaccaro appreciates the sentimentality, but he’s also a realist.

“From an old-timer’s standpoint, I’ll watch it because it’s still the Lakers and Celtics, and we have an interest in it,” he said. “But some of these rivalries are ancient history to some of the young kids today. I guarantee you can walk up to any sports book two minutes before tipoff and still get your bet in.”

Which leads to another question: Which side should you bet if you walk up to a betting window two minutes before tipoff?

The Lakers are minus-180 favorites to win the best-of-7 series. Two years ago, when these teams met in the Finals, the Lakers were favored by about the same price and went down in flames in six games, taking a humiliating 39-point beating in Game 6.

This time, I would rather bet on Bryant than against him. He’s hungry for revenge, Pau Gasol has developed into his ideal big-man sidekick, and the Lakers have home-court advantage in the 2-3-2 format.

But handicapper Mike Scalleat said the underdog is the better bet at plus-160, and there are plenty of reasons to side with Boston, a live ‘dog that is tougher in general and better defensively.

Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo will pose a problem for the Lakers’ Derek Fisher, and Boston veterans Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce know how to grind out the toughest games.

Bryant is impossible to defend, but the Celtics — in part because of assistant coach Tom Thibodeau’s schemes — found ways to overcome the individual exploits of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.

“This could be the last chance for Boston’s Big Three — Allen, Garnett and Pierce — to get another ring,” Scalleat said. “The Celtics are tougher minded than the Lakers’ Hollywood stars. Their defense is better, and their bench is deeper.”

Rondo and Glen “Big Baby” Davis are keys for Boston. Ron Artest and Lamar Odom are always X-factors for Los Angeles.

But the Lakers deserve their status as solid favorites because they have Bryant, Gasol and the home court, and this one will return to Los Angeles for Game 6, at the least. The team hosting the first two games of the Finals won eight of the past 10 titles.

The Lakers are 5½-point favorites in Game 1, with a total of 192. On Lucky’s expanded wagering menu, lines and totals are available for Game 2 (Lakers -5½, 192) and Game 3 (Celtics -3, 191).

The sports books might not find this series to be a wagering fantasyland — Vaccaro estimated the handle would be about 25 percent higher if James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing the Lakers — but nobody is complaining.

“Over the course of the year, you get so many small (futures) bets on the Lakers,” Vaccaro said. “But we’re in good shape. We win a few dollars if the Celtics win, and we might lose a ham sandwich if the Lakers win.

“Most people would pay more attention if it was the Lakers and Cavaliers. You could have made more appealing props if you could have pitted Kobe against LeBron in some of these things.”

The proposition posted for Bryant’s total points today is 29½.

As for LeBron, he’s spending this week conspiring with his free-agent pals, hyping himself and yapping with Larry King.

I prefer to watch Bryant and the Lakers battle the Celtics, and I’ll be interested in betting every game. For some of us, this matchup is as good as it gets in the NBA today. Lakers in seven.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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