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Submitted by Jim Hurley’s Network on Monday, April 17, 2017 at 2:29 PM

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN NOW IN NBA EAST, BUT WEST IS LOCKED INTO THE "BIG THREE"

The suspense is already all but gone in the Western Conference of the NBA. Golden State is even better this year than they were last year....and they're currently healthy! Throw in a friendlier path to the finals...and one half of the league Finals seems already set. Sure, San Antonio and Houston are good enough to play for the title in most seasons. But, they have to get through each other AND Golden State! Brutal.

In the East, however, things are even more wide open than many had been thinking.

#1 seed Boston was already recognized as weak for a top seed. But, they dropped their home opener amidst the tragic situation involving their best player Isaiah Thomas. He basically has to play at 110% for them to shine in a playoff structure. That isn't likely now. And, this team's rebounding is so horrible that 100% from their star might not be enough.

#2 seed Cleveland has a slow and soft defense. They might have created an illusion of being able to "flick a switch" when they won easily at Boston several days ago. Now, that doesn't look so impressive! Beating Indiana by just one (dodging a bullet on a buzzer shot) when the Cavs shot lights out all day is a big red flag.

#3 seed Toronto was already a popular choice to take out Cleveland in the second round. They might not get past Milwaukee! The Bucks have arrived quicker than expected, though still may be too inexperienced to thrive in the higher pressure situations that are ahead. It's one thing to catch a favorite napping. It's another to win when you're supposed to win. Though, you'd still expect one of the top three seeds to ultimately advance to face Golden State...that's much less of a sure thing now than it was a week ago. And Las Vegas futures prices aren't adjusting!

Does this mean #4 Washington is now a serious threat? Yes and no. Washington's name is in what is now a crowded hat. Their own defensive weaknesses will be more exposed when they're not facing an offense as bad as Atlanta's. Though, if they get lucky and Chicago springs a 1-8 upset of Boston...the Wiz could definitely exploit that break.

Handicapping the rest of the East is going to be a fun challenge for sports bettors. The lines were way too high in three of the four openers. Now we have respected teams stirring from their wake-up calls. And we have pre-series underdogs who will now start feeling pressure they hadn't expected (particularly the Bucks and Bulls since they won outright). Here are the keys according to JIM HURLEY:

*Boston must figure out how to rebound better if they're going to get past Chicago. They were crushed on the boards 53-36, which is consistent with Chicago's great rebounding and Boston's poor boxing out. You just can't give away that many second-chance opportunities! Monitor that stat going forward, because it will likely matter more than any other in this series.

*Cleveland must figure out how to rotate defensively. They can't stay back in a shell and allow open looks on treys. They can't fly out to the three-point line only to expose a soft underbelly. Indiana was league average on offense this season, but scored 108 points on just 89 possessions Saturday despite turning the ball over 13 times. Defense wins championships...and Cleveland's defense is much worse than last season's at the moment.

*Toronto has to grow up! They seem to disappoint every postseason. You can't just keep going out and doing the same thing hoping it eventually works. Fight like your life depends on it. Play like a team on offense instead of hoping one of your teammates makes his shot. Saturday's second-half shrivel wouldn't happen to a real championship threat. Shocking for a home team playing in front of a rabid crowd that KNEW they had to make a statement.

In the West...Golden State will either have to face a top-heavy and inconsistent LA Clippers squad, or what appears to be a shorthanded Utah team after Rudy Gobert's injury. That's not quite a bye into the West Finals...but the Warriors are prohibitive favorites to get there. That Houston/San Antonio series is going to be something special if both teams stay healthy. Either of those teams would be favorites to win the East if they were on the other side of the brackets.

The playoffs have just begun...so a lot of BIG, JUICY WINNERS are still ahead! You can always get game day selections from JIM HURLEY and NETWORK'S exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING APPROACH right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453 during normal business hours. When you call, be sure to ask about extended programs that take you through the NBA Playoffs or the MLB season. You get more bang for your buck the earlier you sign up!

Back later this week with more handicapping thoughts. April is LOADED for sports fans because of the busy NBA schedule and all the baseball. Then, the first Saturday in May brings the Kentucky Derby. Nobody knows the horses like JIM HURLEY! Let NETWORK take you to THE WINNER'S CIRCLE every day...every week...and every month ALL YEAR!