For the four remaining teams left in the CBA playoffs, the stakes simply could not be higher. After one of the tightest regular seasons in the history of Chinese basketball followed by a grueling quarterfinal round, the semifinals get underway on Wednesday.
On one side of the bracket is a dream matchup between two historic foes while on the other, one heavily favored team will be challenged by an underdog with no prior history in the postseason. Some compelling basketball is ahead, and there is a feeling that anything could happen.
Guangdong Tigers (No. 1 Seed) vs. Beijing Ducks (No. 3 Seed)
For the last four years, no series has captivated Chinese basketball more than Beijing vs. Guangdong. Between them, the two teams have won every CBA championship since 2006. Each organization is backed by vocal, passionate fan bases. On the court, it is clear that both teams’ players detest each other. During a 2012 Finals game, Guangdong even tried to injure Stephon Marbury on national TV, and tensions have remained high ever since.
Coming into this series, things have been especially hot.
In Beijing, eager fans quickly bought up the entire ticket allocation in anticipation. In an interview with local journalists, Marbury admitted that he “could not wait one moment” until the semifinals got underway. Meanwhile, Guangdong has barely spoken to the press and instead are preparing for the series with maximum intensity.
Guangdong will start as narrow favorites but many in China agree that the series is going to be won and lost in the backcourt. Point guard Will Bynum, a midseason arrival for the Tigers, is averaging 23.5 points and 8.9 assists in the playoffs, and Beijing coach Min Lulei has specifically identified him as Guangdong’s standout player. It is widely believed that the Tigers struggled down the stretch last season because their point guard at the time, former Philadelphia 76ers guard Royal Ivey, was not suited for the Chinese postseason. In contrast, Bynum and Yi Jianlian (27.3 points, 8.1 rebounds) have been in great form all season and work well as a pick-and-pop duo.
Guangdong and Beijing come into this game looking to beat each other with contrasting offensive styles. Min likes his team to run a pick-and-roll heavy offense, while Jonas Kazlauskas’ Guangdong side utilizes a European style that, among other things, encourages constant ball movement and big men taking long-range shots.
The problem for the Ducks is that they may struggle to run their own offensive game as effectively as they would like. Marbury (16.2 points, 6 assists) has been inconsistent for considerable spells of the season and unable to make an impact like he once used to. Before this year, the American was averaging over 30 points in the playoffs but is only 15.6 points per game this postseason. Adding to the Ducks’ woes is that former Laker Sun Yue (10.2 points, 3.6 assists) is struggling with an arm injury. This means that both of Beijing’s ballhandlers will be less than 100% and unable to effectively run Min’s playbook.
While the frontcourt has not been as analyzed as keenly, there is still a critical matchup between Guangdong’s Jeff Adrien (14.1 points, 11.1 rebounds) and Beijing’s Randolph Morris (25.6 points, 10.4 rebounds). Adrien was another late addition to the Tigers, but he has impressed with his rebounding and hustle. The Tigers will need Adrien to try and cancel out Morris, who at over 270 pounds, has outmuscled and overwhelmed Yi Jianlian in the past. Guangdong can’t afford their best frontcourt weapon to get into foul trouble trying to stop Morris, which means Adrien will have to guard the Ducks center.
Beijing, the reigning CBA champions, has beaten the Tigers twice in the last three playoffs, but Guangdong looks like the stronger team and will be able to run its offense more smoothly. In a series that could go down to the wire, it’s little things like this that will ultimately make the difference.
Liaoning Leopards (No. 2 Seed) vs Qingdao Eagles (No. 3 Seed)
Whereas picking the winner of the Guangdong-Beijing series is difficult, Liaoning are seen as strong favorites in their matchup with Qingdao. Liaoning’s coach Guo Shiqang has been bullish about the quality of his team all year and recently admitted to the media that this season will not be a success unless they at least make the final.
The player on whom all the attention will be on during this series is former Cleveland Cavaliers combo guard Lester Hudson (30.9 points). Now playing for Liaoning, Hudson is stronger and quicker than most Chinese guards, which makes him a matchup nightmare for Qingdao. Hudson is also a proven scorer in China and has been given the freedom to run the offense and work with what the defense gives him. If Hudson draws the double team, Liaoning spreads the floor and either knocks down the 3-point shot or let speedy guard Guo Ailun (13.1 points) charge to the rim. If they back off, Hudson, who is shooting 50% from the floor and 42% from long range, can pull up and shoot at will.
Another big factor that favors Liaoning is that the Leopards have enough serviceable big men to shut down Qingdao’s Hamed Haddadi (20.9 points, 14.3 rebounds). For most of the year, the former Memphis big man has dominated teams both on the glass and in the post, but Liaoning will feel confident about cancelling out the Iranian during the series. Many expect Li Xioxu, a tough-nosed rebounder and an enforcer in the paint, to deploy a few dirty plays to get Haddadi off his game. Another problem for Haddadi, who likes to play with his back to the basket, is that Liaoning has one of the few players in the league that is heavier than the Qingdao center. The 310 pound Han Dejun, whose nickname is “the Flying Pig,” may be limited as a defender but he will have the bulk needed to stop Haddadi from backing down towards the rim. This, in turn, will force the Iranian further from the basket, where he becomes less comfortable.
With Haddadi set to be a more marginal figure than before, a lot of the offensive load will be on Justin Dentmon (29.8 points). The shooting guard finished the second half of the regular season averaging over 30 points a game, but was limited in the first round of the playoffs. Opposing guards quickly realized that if Dentmon was guarded closely and stopped from shooting 3-pointers, he quickly began to get frustrated. Liaoning should have noticed this too and will seek to replicate this tactic in their series.
Ultimately, the blueprint for stopping Qingdao has been known for a while: shut down the overseas players and dare the Chinese roster to make shots. The Eagles were lucky to play a team in the quarterfinals that didn’t have enough depth to closely guard both Haddadi and Dentmon at the same time, but Liaoning will. Given that the Eagles rely on outscoring teams, coming up against a more complete team should ultimately be their undoing.
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Andrew Crawford is a long-time Chinese basketball writer and a former beat reporter in the Chinese Basketball Association. His twitter address is @shouldersgalore.