In the aftermath of a bonkers Game 1 between Guangdong and Liaoning, its probably worth breaking down the ebb and flow of a contest that may well decide the series itself. The game was pretty wild in regulation but the controversy that broke out on OT almost changed the result of the game.
While Americans surely have a harder time than me to keep track of Chinese basketball, given that games start at 6:35 AM Eastern Time, being a CBA fan in Italy isn’t much bliss.
There’s barely anybody to talk to; games are often when you’re supposed to be either studying, working or enjoying the company of your family at the dining room; fragmented internet connections; games that just don’t seem to be televised whatsoever (they are, but availability for non-Chinese attendance is fortuitous at best).
Today it’s a good day, though. Guangdong and Liaoning faced off for Game 1 of the CBA semifinals, and you could tell it was going to be a cracker.
Guangdong has been dubbed China’s last basketball dynasty, which is true to a certain extent, and comparisons are often produced to help non CBA-ers relate to what the Southern Tigers have meant to the League; the Chinese Spurs, the Chinese Bulls, the Chinese Lakers, and so on.
But let me help you out with this one: the Guangdong Southern Tigers are the 1980’s Celtics of Chinese Basketball. Proud, gritty, smart. Not always spectacular, not always making headlines. In the West, it is common to see them described as the Spurs but, as strange as it is to say this, the Spurs have become almost flamboyant with their open commitment to efficiency. Also, Gregg Popovich probably sits right next to Phil Jackson in an NBA All-Time All-personality team. By contrast, Du Feng, Guangdong’s head coach, is a former player whose impact on the team is somewhat debatable (they haven’t changed their approach at all from the times he was still playing). In almost two decades of playing or coaching, he had made almost no headlines, except for the occasional ugly tuxedo (today he sports a purple blazer with black trousers – purple and black?!), one of the all-time most awkward athlete cover shoots and that one time he held a full timeout in Chinese with a local guy translating in English– only to then speak pretty decent English to Mudiay because he felt the point guard wasn’t getting the message. Translators, someone to help him pick a suit, an agent to tell him not to pose for a photoshoot that will make you look like a 1970’s porn star; Guangdong have access to all of this but Du likes to do it alone. Meanwhile, within the 2106 Guangdong roster, Zhu Fangyu is no Larry Bird and Yi Jianlian ain’t Kevin McHale but there is a stubborn, cocksure feel to Guangdong that has been there for over a decade.
Liaoning, meanwhile, is the place where talent grows. Zhou Qi, China’s next NBA player, was a gem of theirs before Xinjiang stole him by virtue of a gaudy paycheck. Their local roster is exclusively made of homegrown players. Given the differences in how talent enters the league, it’s impossible to draw a realistic comparison between China and the US, but Liaoning has to be China’s Orlando Magic. Always a bit unlucky, often unprepared for the biggest stage, but immensely talented at recognizing talent. In Liaoning’s case, that gives them an edge over everybody in the regular season, which in turn creates expectations and dreams only for them to tumble down in the play-offs.
In my mind, Guangdong has the odds in its favor during this series, given that they are the home team in Game 1. But come tip-off, it quickly becomes the case that Liaoning are playing better, and it’s actually the Southern Tigers who will probably have to scrap to an overtime period.
I say that because overtime is often where the team who wants to win the most prevails. But even then, it is unclear who, if anyone, on the Liaoning roster, was going to get them over the finishing line. So as I watch Liaoning’s best player, Lester Hudson, cool off after taking too many individual adventures that result in long contested threes, a 22-year-old point guard, Guo Ailun, picks up the slack. Two key buckets helped his team find an offensive rhythm amid a chaotic overtime scramble, whilst Hudson redirected his energy into being a pest on the defensive end (he’ll finish the game with 5 steals). As Liaoning kept rotating well to counter Guangdong’s great ball movement, suddenly we’re in for clutch time. Guangdong has one last possession with the shot clock off and a 2-point deficit to make-up for.
Zhou Peng drives the ball right to the hoop, whilst Hudson and Han Dejun are there to meet him at the rim. His shot gets blocked, then the ball bounces off his back as he’s falling down. At first the ball seems to graze Han Dejun’s leg before going out of bounds, but upon further inspection Han has moved away from it before the ball gets any kind of contact. It is clearly Liaoning ball but as I say this aloud, the head official goes to get a closer look at the situation on the table’s monitor.
Back where I’m sitting in my Milan house, joined for the last two minutes by my mom’s fiancee (not often, as I said, am I joined by anybody when watching the CBA, so it’s newsworthy), it remains clear that it is the Leopards’ ball. With due caution, I have already proceeded to give my guest a heads-up on Chinese refs, ie. that they are often entertaining (cough, cough: I mean terrible). Little did I know what was about to happen. After a 5-minute reflection filled with coaches trying to hug the ref to plead their case (in the US and literally anywhere else you can’t get in the vicinity of the officials when they’re looking at a replay or address them– let alone touch them), somehow the head official determines it is Guangdong ball.
Although I don’t get involved in rooting for one team or the other (unless it’s soccer, of course– as an Italian man I have standards to meet), I got close to Chinese basketball at a time when Guangdong was seen as a nearly unstoppable force now that they had lured Yi Jianlian back home from the NBA. That was 2012 and the Tigers were proceeding to flatten Shandong’s hopes and dreams with a shutout in the Finals.
That obviously left a mark, and though I appreciate greatness, I can’t help loving the underdog. And, given that Liaoning already started this series as a bit of an underdog, it’s easy to see why a terribly blatant case of home cooking hits so close to the gut. It just feels wrong if Guangdong gets to force another OT with a 2-point basket or drain a three-point play to win. But this is Chinese basketball; the home team always has the odds’ favor, no matter what.
However, injustice is part of life everywhere and basketball fans have found their antidote (or, more appropriately, their placebo) to this reality. It’s a Rasheed Wallace quote and I’m sure you know what it is. Guangdong brings it in with little time on the shot clock, Diogu gets a fadeaway jumper close to the hoop. And misses. Liaoning gets the board, and time expires before anybody has the time to gather up and foul someone.
Guangdong 114 – Liaoning 116.
Everyone say it with me; ball don’t lie.