A wretched third quarter and some dire shooting from the free-throw line condemned Shanghai to a painful 90-85 home defeat in game one of their playoff series with the Shanxi Dragons. The hard work now beckons for the Sharks, who must now go to the north of China and win at least one of the next two games in Taiyuan to remain in the playoffs.
The Sharks started with real aggression but still needed a strong first quarter showing from Zhang Zhaoxu to steady their nerves after a brutal opening salvo from Marcus Williams, who scored seventeen points in the opening twelve minutes.
With Williams on the bench for the second quarter, Shanxi lacked their earlier menace and Mike Harris was able to lead his side into the lead thanks to some crisp shooting from in and around the paint. By halftime, the Sharks had pulled away to a 44-38 lead, but the Shanghai bench seemed more concerned by the way in which Harris was hobbling off the court following Ren Junwei’s shameless foul on the American earlier on in the game.
The second half continued to be scrappy as the Sharks tried to find some rhythm amidst a plethora of airballs, missed free-throws and nervy turnovers. Nothing was going in for the Sharks whilst with Williams now lurking on the perimeter and Charles Gaines being a muscular nuisance in the paint, suddenly the Dragons had all they needed to open up a double-digit lead and things looked ominous for Shanghai as their guests took a 69-56 advantage into the fourth quarter.
To their credit, the Sharks never gave up, although crucially for the game’s eventual conclusion, never did Gaines or Williams. When the Americans had an opportunity, they took it and when their route to the basket was blocked, Duan Jiangpeng was on hand to drill home a three pointer.
With two minutes to go in the game, Liu Wei led an improbably late charge that brought the Sharks within four tantalising points of tieing the scores. However, just as soon as the Yuanshen crowd had stopped cheering, Duan duly popped up with another coolly taken trey to reassert Shanxi’s superiority. Then, when Feng Tian missed a brace of free-throws a few seconds later, all seemed lost and the sounds of thousands of pairs of shoes filtering out of the arena could be heard before Williams suddenly gave away a mindless technical with the score at 88-84 to Shanxi.
A crowd that had began to leave, suddenly turned around and in nervous silence, watched Harris sink the first free-throw only to blow the second, before Liu’s subsequent effort from downtown bounced off the rim and away to safety. An unlikely chance at redemption had been wasted as Gaines and Williams then both converted one of their two attempts at the free-throw line after Shanghai fouled them to get the ball back.
For the Dragons, Williams made 37 points, Gaines picked up a beefy 27 point, 19 rebound, double-double whilst Duan got 10. Harris scored 22 points whilst Zhang got 18.
‘We executed out game plan, we kept the score in the range we wanted to keep it in but unfortunately we didn’t make our free-throws’, acknowledged Coach Panaggio at his press conference. Though acknowledging that his side could have won the game had they been more clinical when they went to the line, Panaggio also stressed the unique situations that come with postseason games. ‘This is playoff basketball, and if you look at the history of playoff basketball, statistics decrease during a playoff series’, he stated in response to a question about the team’s scoring in the second half. ‘Teams have a week to prepare for one team, not three teams in a week- you’re preparing for one. [Shanxi] know our personal and we know theirs’.
The Sharks’ coach also made it clear that his side were nowhere near out of the series after one game and that he fully believed in his players’ ability to rally back from tonight’s defeat. ’We’ve got ourselves in a tough spot but we’re going to go up [to Taiyuan] and battle’. Having underlined his own intensity and determination, now Panaggio’s players must do the same on Friday when the Dragons host Shanghai in game two of the series.