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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 1:11 PM

Is the Eastern Conference going to see a seventh straight trip to the Finals for LeBron James? Or did the Cleveland Cavaliers late-season fade and loss of the 1-seed open the door to challengers? Wherever you stand, this is a wide-open conference and it starts right out the gate. Here’s an outline of how the first round of this side of the bracket shapes up in the NBA playoffs...

Boston-Chicago: Has there been a more intriguing matchup on the 1-8 seed lines in recent years? Chicago may be the 8-seed, but they’re also the sixth-best defensive team in the NBA. In a league where experience in the postseason is paramount, the Bulls have the most proven winner in the series with Dwayne Wade—who still averages 18ppg. In a league that values its stars, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler is at least even-up with the terrific Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas.

On the Celtics side of the coin, their 53-29 record is pedestrian by the standards of a #1 seed. They are not a good rebounding team, ranking 27th in the league. They’re heavily dependent on the three-point shot, a direct consequence of the lack of a true post player.

I won’t try and tell you the Bulls are better than the Celtics—there’s a reason one team is seeded #1 and another #8 after a long 82-game schedule. Boston is consistently better prepared and vastly more efficient on offense—they rank eighth in efficiency, while the Bulls are 20th. What I will tell you is that this series feels more like a competitive 3-6 matchup or even a 4-5 than the usual walkover we usually see at this spot in the draw.

Washington-Atlanta: The Wizards are the favored 4-seed and have the dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, a duo that has combined to average 46 points-per-game. They get good three-point shooting from Beal, Bojan Bogdanovic and Otto Porter. They have a viable post player in Marcin Gortat.

But there’s one thing they don’t do well and that’s play defense. Washington is 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Atlanta is fourth. If picking the winner of this series were just about dropping the names of the best players, the Wizards would win—no disrespect to Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard or Dennis Schroder for the Hawks, but Washington is the deeper team. But the Hawks’ whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Is that sum enough to cover spreads, win games and maybe win a series at dog prices? I’ve been studying the NBA diligently for seven months precisely to be ready with answers to those questions now.

Toronto-Milwaukee: Toronto is clearly the more complete team. While Milwaukee star Giannis Antekounmpo deserves a tip of the cap for his splendid season with a 23/9/5 per-game average, the Raptors have lineup balance and playoff experience.

What’s intriguing is that if you look at the championship odds, we see Toronto priced at 30-1 and Milwaukee at 150-1. I don’t bring this up because I think either team is going to win the NBA title, but because it reflects a market belief that the Raptors are five times better than the Bucks. Is the gap that dramatic? And how will that manifest itself in pointspreads on a game-to-game basis?

Cleveland-Indiana: The Pacers are built heavily around a single star (Paul George) and they don’t play very good defense. That sounds a lot like the formula Cleveland uses. Whatever issues the Cavs have, this isn’t the opponent to exploit them. Just be sure you check with me first to see how many points that margin is worth.

Read a preview of the Western Conference matchups

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