Now that only the good teams are left, your friends have invited you over to watch some playoff basketball—but you didn’t even know there was a Golden State. Not to worry: Here’s a cheat sheet for those of you who can’t tell the difference between a Mikan drill and a three-man weave. (Read up, Sebastian Telfair.)
Eastern Conference semifinals: Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
Bulls talking points: On the strength of strong seasons from Ben Gordon and Ben Wallace, a breakout year by forward Luol Deng, and generally strong team play, the Bulls enjoyed their most successful season since the Jordan era. Raise some eyebrows by arguing that the Bulls are a better team qua team now than they ever were in the Jordan/Pippen 1990s.
Historical context: The last time the Bulls won a playoff series was in 1998. Since then, the team has endured five head coaches, two teenage Antichrists, the Dragan Tarlac era, the Eddie Robinson era, and two mascot arrests. It’s been a long time coming.
Conversation starter: “Scott Skiles fits Chicago’s scrappy, blue-collar ethic better than Phil Jackson ever did.”
Conversation stopper: “But if it comes down to Skiles and his staff versus a clown car full of mini-Ditkas, I’m taking the Ditkas.”
Pistons talking points: The Pistons were tops in the Eastern Conference, which is sort of like being the fittest patient in the oncology ward. Defend the Motor City’s bona fides by noting that this year’s Pistons had the league’s best defense, and that defense wins championships. At least it does in football.
Historical context: Twenty years ago, the fabled Pistons’ “Bad Boys” squads were the terror of the NBA. These days, Bill Laimbeer coaches a women’s basketball team, Dennis Rodman is an international embarrassment, John Salley’s on a lousy sports talk show that used to star Tom Arnold, and Isiah Thomas is running the Knicks into the ground. Sort of makes you wonder how Chauncey Billups is going to end up.
Conversation starter: “Good thing the Pistons held onto the right Wallace—I’ll take Rasheed over Big Ben any day.”
Conversation stopper: “Yes, but what about Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre? Talk about an impact performer!”
Eastern Conference semifinals: Cavaliers vs. Nets
Cavs talking points: LeBron James—you know, the guy in the Nike commercials—deservedly gets most of the credit for the Cavaliers’ success, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas has quietly become one of the best centers in the league, and good centers are arguably harder to find than high-scoring small forwards. Go contrarian and argue that without Ilgauskas demanding constant coverage as a low-post scoring threat, James would be a king without a crown. Feel free to refer to him as “The Queen Z” if you like.
Historical context: “Zydrunas” is apparently Lithuanian for hydrogen—which makes sense, because his touch in the paint is lighter than air. OK, that’s neither true nor historical, but people will think you’re wicked smart if you pretend that you can speak Lithuanian and that you know about science, too. I say, use it!
Conversation starter: “LeBron’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman of basketball—he makes everyone he performs with better.”
Conversation stopper: “Keanu Reeves is the Scot Pollard of acting—limited range, only good in very specific roles, and mainly just happy to be there.”
Nets talking points: The Nets won eight of their last 10 games to sneak into the playoffs despite a lackluster regular season. Still, their versatility and athleticism might make them the Eastern Conference team that opponents would least want to face. Cite the Nets’ explosive core of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson as one reason why the Nets might be better suited for short-series success than the Cavs.
Historical context: Although the Nets have been in New Jersey since 1977, ownership wants to move the team to Brooklyn to take advantage of the fan base there that’s been teamless since the Dodgers skipped town in 1958. Ownership also plans to sign Johnny Podres to replace Bostjan Nachbar as the first man off the bench, drill picturesque knotholes in the stadium walls, and offer a free suit to any player who hits a full-court desperation shot.
Conversation stopper: “They really should throw a net over New Jersey.”
Western Conference semifinals: Warriors vs. Jazz
Warriors talking points: It wasn’t just luck that powered the Warriors past the Mavericks: It was luck and Baron Davis. Davis has been called selfish throughout his career, and he’ll probably be knocked by your Utah-loving friends. Kill that argument by saying that you’re only called selfish when your team is losing. When you win, it’s called leadership. Either way, dude can flat-out play.
Historical context: Everybody loves an underdog story, and the Warriors are the most unlikely longshots since Ebert outlived Siskel. Be ready to compare the Warriors to other historical underdogs, like the Miracle on Ice team, or the Bad News Bears, or Chloe from the second season of Project Runway. (Note: Do not make that last reference if you’re in a fratty-seeming bar.)
Conversation starter: “Don Nelson’s teams might not play pretty basketball, but they know how to win.”
Conversation stopper: “Hey, fratty-looking stranger, how ‘bout that Chloe from Project Runway?”
Jazz talking points: Show that you’re conversant in all forms of basketball by arguing that the Jazz are the NBA’s closest thing to a WNBA team: They’re composed of an unheralded group of players who always play hard and completely buy in to the “team basketball” concept. Also, Matt Harpring runs like a girl.
Historical context: In his 19th season with the Jazz, coach Jerry Sloan is as much of a Utah institution as the Mormon Tabernacle or 3.2 beer. According to many of his former players, playing for Sloan is about as much fun as getting drunk on 3.2 beer in the Mormon Tabernacle.
Conversation starter: “Mehmet Okur might be the most overlooked impact player in the NBA.”
Conversation stopper: “Those refs in the first series were more forgiving than Andrei Kirilenko’s wife!”
Western Conference semifinals: Spurs vs. Suns
Spurs talking points: It’s human nature to want to attribute the Spurs’ success to somebody other than Tim Duncan—he’s been so consistent over the past 10 years that there’s nothing new to say about the guy, Joey Crawford notwithstanding. But if you find yourself crushing on Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, stop—Duncan’s the man, he’s always been the man, and, as long as he’s got his legs, he always will be.
Historical context: The Spurs are the only professional sports team in San Antonio, a town that’s also home to the Alamo, site of a famously bloody territory dispute in 1836. The Texans holed up inside the Alamo vowed never to surrender or retreat, even in the face of insurmountable odds, but the Spurs will probably take a timeout if the Suns go on a run. Screw you, history!
Conversation starter: “Robert Horry doesn’t deserve his reputation as Mr. Clutch.”
Conversation stopper: “Duncan, shmuncan … Beno Udrih’s the real heart and soul of the Spurs.”
Suns talking points: Although the Suns led the league in scoring, a surprising portion of their offense came from 3-point shots. You’ll feel like Marc Stein when you tell your friends that the Suns’ chances against the Spurs’ stingy defense (third-best in the league) will rise or fall on the outside J. The Marc Stein comparisons will end when you punctuate your remarks by mock-shooting an invisible basketball and repeatedly making the “swish” sound.
Historical context: In 39 years of existence, the Suns have never won a title, but the people of Phoenix did throw them a 300,000-person strong “good effort” parade after they lost to the Bulls in the 1993 Finals. Aww, Phoenix, the Special Olympics of cities.
Conversation starter: “Leandro Barbosa might be the sixth man on the Suns, but he could start for any other team in the league.”
Conversation stopper: “I hear the Oriental salad at Majerle’s is to die for.”