So your friends have invited you over for some hot NBA playoff action, but you don't know Kobe Bryant from Kobe beef? Here's a cheat sheet for those of you who have never, ever been accused of having your head in the game.
CAVALIERS VS. PISTONS
Pistons talking points: The Pistons thought they were making a big move when, in November, they traded floor leader Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. They made a big move, all right—down to the eighth playoff seed. Iverson did nothing for the Pistons and has been suspiciously deactivated while Billups led the Nuggets to the Western Conference's second seed. You, however, suspect that if the Pistons want to advance, they'd better swallow their pride and put Iverson on the floor—he averages 29.7 points per playoff game.
Historical context: The city of Detroit has had a rough year. The Lions lost every game they played, the lead singer of the Four Tops died, the auto industry fell apart, and the mayor went to prison. So, when you think about it, wasting $4 million per year on Kwame Brown's fat ass doesn't seem so tragic after all.
Conversation starter: "The Iverson trade didn't work out, but Joe Dumars is still an underrated general manager."
Conversation stopper:"I think we should bring more Piston legends back into the fold. Let's buy out his Florida International contract and install Isiah Thomas as head coach!"
Cavs talking points: The Cavs absolutely dominated at home this year, losing only two of the 41 games they played at Quicken Loans Arena. That's bad news for opponents—the Cavs have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Historical context: At times during this season, the Cavs donned gloriously ugly, yellow, '70s-style road jerseys that Ronald McDonald would be proud of. This effort to get in touch with the team's history was a lot more successful than their attempt to sign the 58-year-old Foots Walker as Mo Williams' backup.
Conversation starter: "The Cavs' bench had a pretty good year—but without LeBron, they're just spare parts."
Conversation stopper: "Except for Ben Wallace, who is just a tool. Take that, Ben Wallace!"
CELTICS VS. BULLS
Celtics talking points: The Celtics ended up with the East's second-best record, despite having played without star forward Kevin Garnett for most of March and all of April. They also played the last few months without reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, best known for being white. Garnett may not be back for the playoffs, which, many think, is bad news for the Celtics. But as you know, Scalabrine will also not be back—so these things have a way of canceling each other out.
Historical context: Celtic, of course, means "in the style of the Celts," the ferocious pre-Christian tribe of British Islanders best known for liquoring themselves up and clubbing their enemies to death with shillelaghs. If you're in the mood to experience some "living history," just walk into any Boston bar wearing a Lakers jersey.
Conversation starter: "The Celtics might have basketball's most balanced starting five."
Conversation stopper: "You know what would go well with this Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jersey? A Yankees hat!"
Bulls talking points: Your friends will argue—not unjustifiably—that top overall draft pick Derrick Rose's play has carried the team all season. Emphasize that Rose would have been deflowered down the stretch without protective thorns like midseason acquisitions John Salmons and Brad Miller, whose solid play gave the rookie room to blossom. Then shotgun a beer or something, so that your hard-partying reputation isn't damaged by your oddly intricate floral metaphor.
Historical context: Some say that Rose, averaging 16.8 points and 6.3 assists per game, is the Bulls' first legitimate star since the Jordan era. You, however, remember such recent luminaries as Eddie Robinson, Jay Williams, Eddy Curry, Jalen Rose, and Larry Hughes, before admitting that the haters are right.
Conversation starter: "Although he didn't have much experience before this year, coach Vinny Del Negro acquitted himself pretty well."
Conversation stopper: "Though he might be indicted any minute for kidnapping Pat Riley's hair."
MAGIC VS. SIXERS
Magic talking points: The Magic won the Southeast Division thanks to solid road play, strong defense, the continued emergence of center Dwight Howard, and the realistic fear that, if they didn't play well, trollish coach Stan Van Gundy would eat them.
Historical context: Last year, in his inaugural season coaching the Magic, Van Gundy led the team to the semifinals for the first time in their last seven playoff appearances. This year, he hopes to expand upon that success, if only so that people like you stop mistaking him for a butcher when you see him at the Publix.
Conversation starter: "Picking up Rafer Alston at midseason was just what the Magic needed."
Conversation stopper: "If this team is really magic, then why can't they make Marcin Gortat disappear?"
76ers talking points: The 76ers beat the Cavs at home on Wednesday, and your friends might argue that end-of-season momentum can equal playoff wins. You, however, know that momentum can't make up for an anemic offense that scores only 97 points per game—22nd in the league.
Historical context: On Monday, beloved Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas died after collapsing at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. * Of course, Kalas had no affiliation with the Sixers, but, then again, Rocky was a fictional character and the city built a statue for him, so why not claim that the Sixers will come together and win this one for Harry?
Conversation starter: "Nobody talks about Thaddeus Young, but they will, soon enough."
Conversation stopper: "Actually, momentum—or 'P', as we science types like to call it—equals mass times velocity."
HAWKS VS. HEAT
Hawks talking points: Although they won 47 games this year, the Hawks have no real star (their biggest name is Joe Johnson), an average defense, and a reserve center named "Zaza." They do, however, have fourth-year forward Marvin Williams, recently back from an injury, who can score, rebound, and solve a Rubik's Cube in about two minutes. So if, for some reason, the referees decide to use that as a tiebreaker, you'll know the Hawks have the upper hand.
Historical context: The Atlanta Hawks have made the playoffs 25 times in 40 years but have never won a league title. Explain this disturbing trend by slipping on a Southern accent and noting that it gets "powerful hot down Georgia way" come playoff season, and that consistently letting their opponents win is just a sign of good Southern hospitality. This will be much more convincing if you punctuate your sentences with the phrase "I do declare!"
Conversation starter: "Al Horford could be the league's next dominant center."
Conversation stopper: "I do declare, I'd give my bottom dollar for a thermos of mint juleps."
Heat talking points: Perhaps more than any Eastern Conference team, the Heat relied on their star player to carry them into the playoffs. Dwyane Wade averaged 30.2 points per game this season while the next-leading scorer, Michael Beasley, averaged only 13.9—a 16-point difference. Display your familiarity with the laws of basketball thermodynamics by insisting that repeatedly fouling Wade (a 77 percent free-throw shooter) might be the best way to make the Heat go cold.
Historical context: For a long stretch this spring, the Heat started guard Mario Chalmers and forward Jamario Moon. Use this as an opportunity to remember other rhyming round-ball teammates, like Ike Diogu and Mike Dunleavy, or Kyrylo Fesenko and Andrei Kirilenko, or Pete and Repeat Maravich.
Conversation starter: "Has Jermaine O'Neal never not been an underachiever?"
Conversation stopper:"Get it? Pete and Repeat Maravich? It's funny 'cause they rhyme. Hey, where are you guys going?"
LAKERS VS. JAZZ
Los Angeles Lakers
Lakers talking points: The Lakers played like a real team this year, instead of just "Kobe Bryant and four other stiffs." Of course, teamwork becomes attractive when you've got players like forward Pau Gasol (18.9 ppg) and center Andrew Bynum (14.3 ppg). Go out on a limb by suggesting that the current Lakers roster is starting to resemble Phil Jackson's triple-threat mid-'90s Bulls teams. Then jump off that limb by noting that Dennis Rodman was just kicked off of Celebrity Apprentice and is available for a 10-day contract.
Historical context: Jackson is known for buying inspirational books for his players to read on road trips. While you are generally a fan of this motivational strategy, you suspect that What Should I Do With My Life? may not have been the best choice for Adam Morrison.
Conversation starter: "Pau Gasol complements Kobe better than Shaq ever did."
Conversation stopper: "And I compliment Kobe all the time on my blog, sayingnicethingsaboutkobebryant.wordpress.com."
Jazz talking points: Ronnie Brewer? Paul Millsap? C.J. Miles? The Jazz roster sounds more like a list of John Coltrane sidemen than a bunch of basketball players. Maybe it doesn't matter—the Jazz always make the playoffs, no matter who is on the roster. Still, you should kindly but firmly shoot down your friend's contention that, next year, Utah should sign Clark Terry.
Historical context: Jerry Sloan has coached the Jazz since 1988. While your friends might wonder why it is that he's never won coach of the year, you agree with the voters that mumbling angrily about "these damn kids" and constantly mistaking Mehmet Okur for Karl Malone is evidence of senility, not genius.
Conversation starter: "Kyle Korver's the sort of guy who can catch fire in the playoffs and really change a game."
Conversation stopper: "Basketball is for wusses. Bernie Brewer could drink Ronnie Brewer under the table any day of the week."
NUGGETS VS. HORNETS
Nuggets talking points: The commentators will note how the Nuggets elevated their game once Chauncey Billups arrived from the Pistons at midseason. You, however, know that the Nuggets were flying pretty high already and that players like Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Nene Hilario had a lot to do with the team's success. You do, however, understand that it is really fun to say "Chauncey Billups."
Historical context: Last summer, the Nuggets' home court (the Pepsi Center) played host to the Democratic National Convention—a fast-paced five-day extravaganza of politicking, partying, and liberal activism. If you see a dazed, dehydrated Dennis Kucinich crawling around somewhere up in the rafters, please notify his family, as he's been missing for the past eight months, and they're starting to get worried.
Conversation starter: "If I'm the Hornets, I'm trying to send Kenyon Martin to the free-throw line every chance I get."
Conversation stopper: "Denver Nuggets ... those are sort of like Rocky Mountain oysters, right?"
New Orleans Hornets
Hornets talking points: The Hornets tried to trade center Tyson Chandler at midseason, only to have the trade voided when Chandler failed his physical. (He's got a bum left big toe.) Good thing he failed—Chandler's something of an emotional leader for the Hornets, and his unexpected reappearance helped catalyze their push to the playoffs. Then he got hurt again, and the Hornets lost six of their last eight. Did I mention he's a great emotional leader?
Historical context: The Hornets used to be in Charlotte. Then they moved to New Orleans. Then they moved temporarily to Oklahoma City. Now they're back in New Orleans—for the time being. Nobody blames you for not buying season tickets.
Conversation starter: "Sure, LeBron James was fabulous this year, but Chris Paul is the NBA's MVP—the rest of the Hornets suck way more than the rest of the Cavs."
Conversation stopper: "James Posey is like a fine wine that only gets better with age. Peja Stojakovic, however, is starting to taste like Manischewitz."
SPURS VS. MAVERICKS
San Antonio Spurs
Spurs talking points: The big story with the Spurs this year is the emergence of guard Roger Mason Jr., an obscure and underutilized journeyman who unexpectedly flourished in his first year under Gregg Popovich, averaging about 12 points per game while nicely complementing the more explosive Tony Parker. Also, Tim Duncan is the best player who ever lived.
Historical context: Whenever they win the NBA Championship (which they do just about every other year), San Antonio throws the Spurs a victory parade, in which the team boards various boats and sails down the city's main river, waving to the fans who are cheering them on with the traditional chant of, "Go, Spurs, Go!" After learning this, you have never been more confident about your decision not to move to San Antonio.
Conversation starter: "Gregg Popovich has the third-best career winning percentage in NBA history. Why doesn't he get more attention?"
Conversation stopper: "The first man to combine a popover and a sandwich into one delicious package will make a million bucks."
Mavericks talking points: With a roster featuring names like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, and Josh Howard, your friends might argue that the Mavericks should be better than they are. You, however, will note that the Mavericks' roster also features names like Jose Barea and Erick Dampier. You're just sayin'.
Historical context: While growing up in Germany, star forward Nowitzki honed his talents through a bizarre workout routine involving jazz gymnastics, fingertip pushups, and saxophone lessons. Knowing this, you suspect that you should at least be able to leverage your ability to open a beer with your teeth into a three-year deal with Oklahoma City.
Conversation starter: "Maybe Mark Cuban can pour some of that money he saved on the Cubs deal into buying a decent center."
Conversation stopper: "Or he could buy a giant foam cowboy hat for every man, woman, and child in Texas!"
TRAIL BLAZERS VS. ROCKETS
Rockets talking points: Freakishly tall Houston center Yao Ming draws attention for solid paint play, consistent rebounding, and being freakishly tall. Sound like a coach by noting that for the past four years, he's led all centers in free-throw percentage—which might be the most notable thing about him. "Hack the big man" doesn't work as a strategy when your big man can hit from the line.
Historical context: The Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 under coach Rudy Tomjanovich and have been also-rans ever since. Although you might be tempted to lead your friends in a slowly building chant of "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy" if the Rockets are losing, make sure that Sean Astin isn't in the room when you do—because he gets that all the time, and he's goddamn sick of it!
Conversation starter: "Ron Artest might be crazy, but he sure can play."
Conversation stopper: "Kermit Washington was right!"
Portland Trail Blazers
Trail Blazers talking points: Once known as a refuge for bad attitudes and head cases, the Blazers have turned themselves around through a string of smart draft-day dealings—LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy are both homegrown talent. You, however, insist that they didn't really get good until they got rid of that son of a bitch Dan Dickau.
Historical context: The Trail Blazers were once coached by P.J. Carlesimo, best known for being attacked during practice by an aggrieved Latrell Sprewell while he was coaching Golden State. You ought to realize that you're headed in that same direction if you keep sneaking up from behind and tweaking your friends' nipples.
Conversation starter: "Roy, Aldridge, and Oden get all the attention, but Travis Outlaw is pretty damn good, too—and he's only 24."
Conversation stopper: "God, Maine is lovely this time of year."
Correction, April 17, 2009: This article originally stated that Kalas died at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, which no longer exists. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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