For the first time in years, the hyperbole generated in the build-up to a CBA Finals is actually living up to the hype. Three games into the championship series, the Liaoning Leopards have a 2-1 lead over the defending champion Beijing Ducks.
All three of the encounters have been compelling, but what has helped the CBA is that no one can confidently say what is going to happen next. Certain assumptions have turned out to be true. For example, Beijing’s Stephon Marbury and Liaoning’s Lester Hudson seem set to slog it out for the series MVP. But on the flip side, home advantage has not been a factor, nor has Beijing’s experience of playing at this level. Instead, the Finals, for the first time in a long time, are showcasing what the league should be; a compelling spectacle with both coaches trying to outwit the other using both American and Chinese players as tactical weapons.
Going into the opening game of the series, Liaoning were expected to win, simply because Beijing were seen as a weak road team. The Leopards had not hosted a Finals game since 2008, but Liaoning had retained several players from that side. Han Dejun, Yan Ming and Li Xiaoxu were all 18-year-olds during the 2008 series but now in their athletic prime, all three were being touted as big parts of Liaoning’s quest to finally win a CBA championship.
Head coach Guo Shiqiang was himself in his first year on the Leopards bench in 2008 and talked extensively about how the seven-year gap between Finals trips had made him a better coach.
Yet for all the narrative building that was going on, Liaoning would lay an egg in front of their home fans by losing Game 1 103-84. Both teams looked anxious early on and the first half was spent trying to figure out how the other roster was trying to play. However, once Beijing found their feet, the reigning CBA champions began to stretch Liaoning’s defense with smart ball movement, allowing them to get off uncontested shots from beyond the three-point line.
A flurry of treys from Marbury and Sun Yue would open up a double-digit lead midway through the third quarter, and Beijing never looked back. At one point, Marbury, who finished with 22 points, would even be applauded by the opposing fans for making an especially tough shot. Sun meanwhile had 27 points, including seven treys.
Beijing had made a statement in Game One and the team’s dominance was underlined by Sun twice turning to the crowd and gesturing them to be silent. It would be this cocksure swagger that the Ducks carried into Game Two, with a couple of media reports even suggesting that Marbury had trash talked Liaoning’s Lester Hudson as the teams crossed paths during a training session.
Liaoning, though, was determined not to be intimidated and came out swinging in Game Two.
Led by Hudson, who had 41 points, the Leopards scored 38 points in an explosive fourth quarter. Hudson would take the headlines but what the box score didn’t show was how big of a factor Liaoning’s frenzied perimeter defense was. The Ducks’ backcourt was rarely allowed a second to compose itself, meaning Marbury, Sun and Li Gen committed a combined 13 turnovers. With their ballhandlers constantly under pressure, Beijing’s pick-and-roll offense couldn’t get going and the Ducks’ offense floundered. By contrast, all Liaoning had to do was put the ball in Hudson’s hands and watch the point guard make clutch basket after clutch basket.
But it would be Game Three that generated the most column inches out of all the Finals encounters so far. The series is in Beijing for the middle three games and the Ducks also had the best home record in the league. In the build-up to the game, Marbury and his teammates had talked about how much they were looking forward to playing in front of a sold-out 18,000 seat Wukesong Arena.
Perhaps, it was whispered, the Ducks could win all three of those games at home and end the Finals there and then.
Instead, the opposite happened. Liaoning won 109-108 in a wild shoot-out. Marbury would have 42 points while Hudson had a 31 point, 12 assist, 11 rebound triple-double. Both teams would play aggressive defense for much of the game and three different Beijing players attempted to hard foul Hudson into the stands. It looked to be working and with Hudson being constantly manhandled, Beijing was in control by the narrowest of margins.
Deep into the fourth quarter, Marbury looked to have given Beijing the lead after driving to the rim, finishing through contact and converting the extra point from the free-throw line. It made the score 108-107 with 20 seconds to play, but Hudson had one last chance and took it when he too got into the lane and finished through heavy traffic. Hudson had deliberately run down the clock before he made his move with barely any time left to play, Beijing had no chance of getting the ball back down the court. Improbably, the Ducks had lost at home and suddenly found themselves down 2-1 in the series.
What happens now remains anyone’s guess.
Both teams have been playing at a relentless pace and as the series goes on, each has modified their tactics only for the other to readjust within a quarter. Liaoning, though, have figured out that Beijing is at its weakest when Randolph Morris, the Ducks American center, is not on the court and unable to lock down the paint. Not only does it give Hudson an excuse to charge into the lane, it also allows Liaoning to scoop up offensive rebounds and restart plays. Moreover, Beijing relies on Marbury to play the majority of the fourth quarter, which means the Ducks are vulnerable on defense in crunch time. With a possible four games to go, Beijing’s coach Min Lulei will have to fix this flaw but if he doesn’t, Liaoning could finish this series sooner rather than later.
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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.