The 15-day, 24 hour barrage of firecrackers that start on chun jie (Chinese New Year) ended two nights ago to the relief of this now nearly deaf blogger as China celebrated the final night of the Lunar Festival, yuan xiao (Lantern Festival).
Marking the 15th day and first full moon of the new year, the festival is the official end of the Spring Festival period… and of all of the loud firecrackers that are lit off in every corner of Beijing and other places in China.
But with the Chinese Basketball Association post-season set to tip off this Wednesday, there’s still a lot more fireworks to come in the month of March. Happily, they’ll only be metaphorical.
And that’s a good thing, because there promises to be a lot of on-court noise during the next five to six weeks. Continuing its trend in recent years, the league currently enjoys its highest level of parity with the Shandong Gold Lions crashing the championship discussion with the defending champs, the Beijing Ducks, and the team that’s won seven out of the last nine, the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
Whereas both the Ducks and Tigers rely on their own respective star-of-stars (Stephon Marbury and Yi Jianlian), the Lions’ advantage is in numbers: Unlike almost every other team the league, who can only play two foreign players, the Lions can march out three due to a rule that allows the four worst teams from the previous season to sign an additional Asian import.
Playing alongside Pooh Jeter, who has been phenomenal in his Chinese debut season, and Jackson Vroman, Zaid Abbas, longtime Jordan National Team member and four-year CBA vet, has enjoyed arguably his best professional season ever. Known as “Mr. Playoffs” in China, Abbas has led his fourth different team in four years to the post-season, and seeing how this Gold Lions edition features a talented crop of young, up-and-coming Chinese players, he has his best shot to reach the first Finals appearance of his career.
While it’s not certain if the Lions have enough to get out of the semifinals, things are much clearer on the other side of the bracket, where the top-seeded Southern Tigers are dump truck-heavy favorites to reach the championship.
Yi, who has the talent of an American but is under no restrictions due to his registration as a Chinese player, has been close to dominant this year as teams have been forced to pick their poison of putting a less talented defender on either him or American forward Ike Diogu.
Terrence Williams, who played solidly for 29 games, was a late season roster casualty (he is now with the Boston Celtics) as former Chinese National Team-turned-CBA head coach, Lithuanian Jonas Kazlauskas brought in point guard Donald Sloan last week as his replacement.
Sloan, who started the season with the Cleveland Cavaliers before getting waived in December, had been in the D-League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce before getting his deal in southern China. He will immediately will be put in the post-season pressure cooker for a team that will consider anything less than a championship a face-losing failure.
And that brings us to Beijing. Coming off of their first ever league championship last season, the Ducks have been pacing themselves in order to stay relatively fresh and healthy for their post-season run. And that’s important when your best player, who also happens to be the country’s most unguardable player, is 36 years old. ‘
Against the Ducks, opponents know what they’re getting: A steady diet of Marbury pick-and-rolls mixed in with a side of Randolph Morris isolations on the elbow. Yet something that sounds so simple is in fact almost impossible to stop in a league that has no rim protectors and nobody physically able to match up with the Ducks highly talented American duo.
Ducks head coach Min Lulei has essentially handed over the offensive reigns to Marbury, trusting him completely to run a simple yet devastating offense that takes advantage of his ability to run spread sets from a variety of angles. Surrounded by knockdown Chinese shooters, Marbury is equally adept at drawing and kicking or simply finishing at the rim himself.
Marbury has confounded every opponent he’s faced, most notably the Southern Tigers, who lost both regular season matchups against the Ducks this season after losing emphatically in the Finals last season. The addition of Sloan is supposed to give them another player to throw his way, and he will be tasked at some point to try to slow him down.