Major surprises are overthrowing the longstanding hierarchies in China, as both Beijing and Guangdong – the two dynasties of the Chinese basketball empire – are relinquishing their thrones.
With two best-of-five series already at 2-0, the sides of Xinjiang and Guangdong have to climb out of huge holes. Xinjiang is the home of Andray Blatche, Bryce Cotton and Zhou Qi, China’s next NBA player; and Guangdong for many years has been a de facto equivalent to the Chinese national team, captained by former NBA lottery pick and CBA juggernaut Yi Jianlian and featuring former NBA pro Ike Diogu.
Let’s review the stories that have been the talk of the Chinese Basketball Association playoffs during the first round and semifinals.
1. The King is dead, long live The King!
Beijing is officially out of the playoffs after a crushing 3-1 defeat suffered in the first round at the hands of Xinjiang. Certainly anybody with some familiarity to Chinese history must have looked with curiosity at a rendezvous between the capital of China and the capital of its major autonomous region, one where Han people only amount to 40 percent of the population (second to the Uyghurs) as opposed to greater China’s 92 percent.
Many are the Uyghur players filling up Xinjiang’s roster as well, among which Xirelijiang was the designated Stephon Marbury stopper in a four-game frenzy that had its peak in Game 2, a feisty matchup that culminated in Xirelijiang stealing Marbury’s pass out of a double-team on the final possession, then proudly pointing to the name of his province. You know, ’cause Xire is Xire.
While it isn’t the first time a Beijing run captained by the former All-Star ended without championship glory, and Marbury showed no signs of fatigue in the series, it’s hard to see the New York native carry out another postseason run next year at 40.
For the first time, even diehard Marbury fans will suspect that Beijing’s CBA reign is over. But is it?
Shandong was supposed to be the dark horse candidate to win the title after a scintillating 28-10 season with former Sacramento Kings guard Pooh Jeter and recently voted MVP Michael Beasley at the helm. While Guangdong did retain home court advantage against them in Round 1, nobody really expected B-Easy and his peers to fall so hard so quickly.
An 3-0 series loss to the Southern Tigers, all by margins of at least 14 points, is a brutal wake-up call, and the hearsay that part of the Chinese roster wasn’t happy with an apparent lack of trust in them only adds to the confusion.
While Shandong is effectively done for this season, it is also unlikely that Beasley (who has been the CBA All-Star Game MVP as well, and with decent numbers) will consider them as a suitable destination if he happens to come back to the Celestial Empire next season.
Add the notion that Jeter, a local hero in Shandong, had a quarrel with the front office last season and was sure to leave for good before changing his mind, and you end up with a hot mess of a team that never seems in a position to take the next step.
On the flip side, the team brims with young local talent, and more foreign players will be happy to be introduced to Chinese ball by a top-class insider like Pooh.
Will this ever add up to title contention, however?
Since we are already deep into the semifinals, it’s time to address how those two series are unfolding.
Based on recent history, Liaoning vs. Guangdong is probably the David vs. Goliath of the CBA. Liaoning is often home to the most fascinating talents in the mainland; Zhou Qi was actually part of their youth program but was lured away by Xinjiang’s money just before turning pro. However, results have never followed.
Liaoning reached the CBA Finals last season, only to be beaten in six games by Beijing after a very good postseason run that sparked some hope from their fans, only to be let down once again.
But Liaoning will contend as long as they have an MVP candidate, and Lester Hudson has been that once again this season, Hudson has teamed up with another former Celtic in Shavlik Randolph to form a blast of a partnership. Aside from his NBA appearances, Randolph also has a CBA scoring title under his belt. The duo dragged Liaoning to the playoffs with 17 straight wins to end the regular season.
That run hasn’t stopped yet. Liaoning swept eighth seed Zhejiang, 3-0, and has a 2-0 lead on Guangdong that might very well have already ushered the Southern Tigers out of the playoffs, missing the CBA Finals for the second straight year.
The stories of this series have been consistently amazing play by Hudson and Randolph on both ends, Li Xiaoxu’s double-doubles – the 6-9, 25-year-old forward has always been one of the best rebounders among locals – and Guo Ailun’s reliability at point guard.
Last year, we praised Beijing’s Li Gen for showing out when it mattered most. Is this year destined to be Guo’s for the taking?
Sure enough, the Flying Leopards are rampant and riding a 22-game winning streak. Who will stop them?
4. Playin’ with huājiāo
Just as the huājiāo, the Sichuan pepper, spices up what is probably China’s most replicated cuisine around the world, there is a sense of urgency spicing and animating Sichuan’s very own “Big Three” and pushing them past an impervious hurdle: the Xinjiang Flying Tigers of Blatche, Cotton and Zhou.
Xinjiang has the deepest roster you will see suiting up for a CBA side. Liu Wei, Li Gen, Makhan Korambek, Wang Lei, Xirelijiang and Su Wei are all bona fide All-Stars, and some of them are barely seeing decent playing time.
Meanwhile, Meng Da, Sichuan’s only significant local transfer, has been the perfect floor spacer for a team that has three imports carrying the load in nearly every game. (CBA teams are allowed a third import of Asian nationality if it has been in one the bottom five the previous season.)
Former NBA fringe player Justin Dentmon is a super-quick point guard who buries threes at will. Former Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi is the big-bodied mastermind who commands both the offensive and defensive maneuvers. And Mike Harris is the do-it-all star swingman that knows the CBA all too well.
They were already partners in crime in Qingdao last year, when they reached the semifinals under Li Qiuping, the coach who discovered and nurtured none other than Yao Ming back in Shanghai. This year, however, Li is on the opponent bench.
The series has been tight, with Sichuan grinding out a pair of three-point wins, needing overtime in Game 2.
While Xinjiang have their backs against the wall, it is not over. But the three foreigners in Sichuan are doing an amazing job, shouldering the load by themselves and overcoming any obstacle, including an 0-for-9 donut by Meng Da in Game 2.
Will they be able to finish the job?
Marco Catanzaro is a blogger and a CBA analyst at Shotsuey!, Shark Fin Hoops and, of course, Sheridan Hoops. You can follow him on Twitter @Arnstrad.