Liu Wei turned thirty-three in style by achieving the closest thing basketball has to a Geordie Howe hat-trick as he scored a season-high 37 points, dished out 5 assists and then squared up to Bao Zhaobao, a man almost ten years his junior and nine inches taller. Oh, and Shanghai beat their bogey team by a big margin.
In many ways, the scuffling from the birthday boy summed up a feisty but swashbuckling game for the Sharks, who finally had all three of their key offensive threats on the floor and in full swing. Gilbert Arenas had an equally wild night, shooting 28 points of his own, including a nonchalant three pointer from close to the tip-off circle. DJ was also good value with a 20/23 double-double.
There was no doubt that this was going to be a fun game as soon as Cai Liang threw down a monstrous dunk early on in the first quarter to open up a ten point lead. Cai, whose English name is Spider, fittingly hung around on the rim for what seemed like an age as the crowd came to their feet for the first of many occasions in the game.
Leading the charge at the visitors was Arenas, who somewhat unsportingly was trying to break the ankles of every nervous Shanxi player sent to guard him. The American was probably given a talking to during a subsequent time-out by head coach Wang Qun but the home fans didn’t seem to care. Having endured a disappointing first half to the season, they were loving the circus of swagger breaking out on the court in front of them.
Shanxi, remarkably for a team that has traditionally had the Sharks’ number for the last couple of seasons, looked rattled. Charles Gaines, who remains in the conversation for the best player in China right now was a physical force in the paint while Duan Jiangpeng was just as deadly when alone in a corner but the rest of the Dragons team left a lot to be desired. Christian Eyenga, a first round pick for Cleveland in 2010 was so off the pace that his own point guard was berating him and it seemed like an achievement in itself that the Dragons were only down by nine points at the break.
The visitors were further hindered by the determination of Bao to get himself ejected and two minutes after he received a technical for sparking a shoving match with Liu, the big man got what he wanted. A blatant attempt at mowing down the Sharks skipper as the latter attempted a lay-up was the last straw for the officials and the center was gone.
Still only halfway through the third quarter but without Bao’s screens to help clear a path for him in the paint, Gaines suddenly lost his safety blanket and was forced to do all the heavy lifting by himself. Shanxi still had the potential to make buckets but quickly lost the self-belief.
Accordingly, DJ White almost tore the rim down with a violent dunk midway through the fourth while Arenas and Liu were taking it in turns to make it rain from downtown. It wasn’t victory cigar basketball but it was close.
As the clock ran down to the tune of ‘happy birthday’ playing in the background, there was still time for Liu to fire home a brace of free-throws amid a standing ovation from the crowd. As far as Chinese birthday parties go, tonight was pretty good.