2:28 to go. Tie game. Guangdong and Beijing. Again.
It’s game 4 of the CBA Semifinals and, as the Liaoning Dinosaurs wait for an opponent to face after having methodically dismantled the Qingdao Eagles, Du Feng tries to cheer up his players, and inherently himself, with a nervous clap, then looks away. He’s worried.
It’s an elimination game for the perennial contenders from Canton, down 2-1 against their nemesis, Stephon Marbury, and his Beijing Ducks.
Du Feng knows what the scoreboard looks like. It’s overtime, Beijing 99 Guangdong 99, and Zhu Fangyu, first in all-time points scored in the Chinese Basketball Association, has just missed a free throw.
Here starts our play-by-play.
2:28 – Zhu converts his second free throw. Guangdong reaches 100 points. What do they say? First to 100 wins? Not necessarily, as Beijing looms in at 99. Beijing takes the ball into play quickly, as CCTV’s cameras linger momentarily on Will Bynum’s face. The former Piston is out, his shoulders and hands covered in a huge red-and-white Li-Ning towel as his early injury in this very game won’t allow him to take part in the one true game he would have liked to play. Mudiay is on the floor with Gao Shang, who hasn’t been much in coach Du’s rotations but is defending Marbury pretty well, and probably is the only suitable Southern Tiger for the job. Beijing is small, with Zhu Yanxi, a stretch big man at the 5 and both Sun and Zhai, small forwards in theory (Sun, however, is a point-forward who won an NBA title with the Lakers in 2009) on the floor to accompany Starbury and Li Gen.
2:20 – Guangdong seems to trust Gao’s ability to stay in front of Marbury. Yi is talking on defense, possibly making sure Zhu Fangyu doesn’t leave Zhai too much space on the opposite corner, while Yi himself takes on Zhu Yanxi. Everybody talks, yet no one is really communicating, as Marbury, on the left side of the floor, beats Gao to the baseline and gets to the rim unscathed. Yi is too focused on talking to the other guys, probably not expecting Marbury to beat his man so quickly.
That’s Stephon Marbury, and he’s at the rim when Yi even realizes. Beijing up 1, 101-100.
CCTV, gracefully, avoids zooming on anybody from Guangdong.
Marbury has 34 on 14/28 from the field.
1:57 – Mudiay unconvincingly gets some pick’n’roll action with Yi, who smartly avoids running to the basket as the Congolese hardly has any angle to feed him the ball, going instead for a post-up on Sun Yue, who has switched with Zhu Yanxi on the ball screen. Mudiay, were he less tired, more aggressive and probably more experienced, would exploit the other side of the mismatch and take Zhu off the dribble, as Yi hasn’t gained much ground on Sun (who might play like a point guard but is still 6’9″) and would have to start his post possession too far from the basket. The young PG instead picks up his dribble early to see if there’s room to feed his big man and, with what at this point is a correct decision, passes to Gao near him. Keep the ball moving, something will happen in the next 12 seconds. Maybe the future NBA stud will get the ball back and do something. But the ball is in Gao’s hands, and Gao, feeling responsible for Marbury’s last bucket, owes something to his team. Yi could now be fed in the post, as he has now established an acceptable position to start his one-on-one. Gao, having some room as Marbury isn’t keeping his hands up, fires away.
Hand down, man down.
Guangdong up 2, 101-103, as Guangdong’s bench explodes.
1:42 – Marbury, once again on the left side, calls a pick’n’roll himself with Zhu Yanxi. Zhu Fangyu, guarding the Pekinese big man, knows his scouting reports and shows up to Marbury, trying to avoid him penetrating too quickly for Gao Shang to fight over the screen while making sure someone sticks with Zhu Yanxi, otherwise it will be a three-pointer. Marbury gets past Fangyu and moves towards the rim. Yi hasn’t been involved in pick’n’roll defense as Guangdong seems to play some kind of zone, so the rim will be well protected. If there’s a space to get the best of, that has to be the mid-range. Marbury two-steps into a jump shot, and elevates.
As he elevates, at the last possible moment Guangdong’s pick’n’roll defense works. Gao has fought his way back to the Statue Man, forcing him to get rid of the ball to Sun’s advantage.
Zhai Xiaochuan is probably told to leave the perimeter, break into the paint and fight for offensive rebounds as soon as every shot goes up, because he does it for the second time in a row in his second offensive possession, as he has subbed in for Zhang Qingpeng after the veteran guard picked up 2 fouls in a row on Zhu F.(a charge and some tripping action while getting posted up on).
Still, Zhai has time to recover his corner position, and Li Gen is open on the perimeter near Sun himself.
If this was the Spurs and Sun Yue was Emanuel Ginóbili, this ball would get bullet-fired to Zhai, who is relatively unattended near the rim. Mudiay has to close-out on Sun himself, and Zhou Peng on Li (n.1 in white jersey), there’s room for a pass like that. If this was any other Spurs player, probably Sun would skip pass to Li, Li attack the close out and, as Yi rotates, hit Zhai either in the paint or in the left block. Maybe, given how the Spurs like to pass up on shots for better looks and on better looks for even better shots, Zhai would be in the left corner and, if someone rotates to him, feed Zhu Yanxi, who that deep in rotational defensive action would most certainly be free as a bird. But this isn’t the Spurs and Sun is not Ginóbili, thus he exploits his size advantage on Mudiay closing out and shoots over him. Zhai tries to tap the ball away from Yi, but it ends up in Zhu Fangyu’s hands. Guangdong ball.
1:26 – Mudiay gets another ball screen by Yi. This time Yi moves perfectly away from the Congolese leaving both Sun and Zhu Y. with Mudiay, who immediately feeds him the ball to the rim. Marbury, who was guarding Gao on the corner, has to rotate and foul Yi, who makes both free throws as Beijing’s bench looks like a funeral home. Everybody looking down to the floor.
Coach Min Lulei calls a timeout. Yi has 31 to go along with 24 boards. Insane numbers.
At the end of a 20 second timeout Du Feng has some final instructions for Mudiay alone. The translator follows the two, but Du’s last words are met by Mudiay with a sound “alright”. Maybe coach Du does speak a bit of English.
1:20 – Min Lulei is aware of what went wrong with Marbury’s earlier possession: the screen didn’t get Yi out of the paint, which led the American to avoid running at full speed to an uncovered basket. Now, Marbury gets a screen from Zhai Xiaochuan, who is guarded by Yi, and comes up with an absolute gem: for one split second Gao turns his head a bit to look at the screener, and Marbury chooses that exact split second to attack him. That split second gives Marbury a half step on Gao with no Yi protecting the rim. Zhu stays goalside of Zhu Yanxi to avoid offensive boards and Zhou Peng correctly leaves Li Gen on the perimeter to protect the basket. Marbury gets away with pushing him off with his left arm and scores.
1:00 – Mudiay gets yet another pick’n’roll play with Yi. This time, as Sun is being more aggressive to the ball, the Congolese has to protect the ball with his body before getting the ball screen and turn the corner. As a result, he doesn’t bolt to the rim as quickly as he could and Sun does a good job of staying beside him while Zhu Yanxi contains. Mudiay goes for a lob pass to Yi, but Yi’s still a bit too far to try a dunk and the pass is a bit long. Yi collects the ball, but as Zhu Yanxi has recovered very quickly and is on him, Yi finds himself under the basket. A couple of dribbles test Zhu Y.’s strength and quickness as Yi wants to go for the right hook. Zhu does so well that the former lottery pick has no balance for a hook shot, and as he tries to get his feet in a better position he gets correctly called for lifting his left pivot foot. Traveling violation.
If this was the NBA Zhu would bump his chest and scream “first team All-Defense!”. Too bad it isn’t.
0:39 – Two ball screens for Marbury as he tries to get a mismatch. He won’t be content to challenge Gao Shang again, as he can’t be screen-watching all the time. The first screen is set by Zhai: he gets Yi to stay on Marbury (and so out of the paint), but Gao doesn’t follow him, Yi understands no switch has taken place and quickly recovers on Zhai, who screens for Li. It doesn’t do wonders, as Zhou Peng easily stays with Li, but as he does Li screens for Marbury and forces the switch. Li Gen thinks about posting up Gao Shang but soon realizes Marbury will attack the mismatch and gets out of the way.
He doesn’t do it quickly enough, however: as the Statue Man gets past Zhou Peng and moves to the cup, Gao stays in the paint and contests the shot. Marbury is now surrounded by three men in blue jerseys and Yi gets the block.
Guangdong just needs to complete the defensive sequence by getting the loose ball, and it wouldn’t be a problem.
In his last timeout coach Min probably hasn’t changed too many instructions offensively, aside from making Yi defend the pick’n’roll. Among those unchanged, Zhai’s cuts to the rim for offensive rebounds. Didn’t pay off the first times.
It does now. Zhai gets the ball before it’s out of bounds and, while on precarious balance, is smart enough to understand Marbury will have both his feet on the floor if he waits ’til the last possible split second to give him the ball.
He does, Marbury now has a step on Yi and ties the game.
0:21 – Some strong side movement is the first non-pick’n’roll action we see in a while: Mudiay feeds Zhu F. after a Zhou Peng “screen” (hyphens are mandatory), then moves to the corner as Zhou gets the ball top of the key with Sun on him instead of Li. Probably Guangdong hoped Li and Sun would get confused on the switch and leave one of them open. It doesn’t happen. Yi, very smartly, understands this is going nowhere, seizes the moment and gets great post position on Zhu Y. right in the middle of the paint. Marbury approaches to see if a double team’s needed, but Zhu Y., knowing he has given up a good position for a back-to-the-basket play, has no other choice but to gamble for the ball. He manages to tip the ball, which forces Yi to take more than the needed time and a bit of a fumble to grab the basketball. Sun Yue leaves Zhou Peng, an unreliable shooter from distance, to pressure Yi. Marbury is looming too. Zhu doesn’t back down. No one cuts to the basket. The only Beijing players who haven’t left their assignments are Zhai Xiaochuan, who has the sweet-shooting Zhu Fangyu near him, and Li Gen, who gestures with his left hand as to say “I know where Mudiay is, I got my man covered. I’m not just ball-watching”. As Yi gets up a right hook that goes long, Li immediately gets physical with the young Congolese and writes him off the offensive rebound picture. As Zhu, Gao and Zhou are indeed ball-watching, the aforementioned picture now comprises no one. Li gets the board.
Last possession. Marbury brings up the ball. Strolls around. The Wukesong Arena is buzzing. You can hardly hear the loud and completely non-heroic music. Gotta remember it’s the same place where a playoff game this year got started to the epic sound of Super Mario’s theme. Marbury fakes a penetration right, then another one left. Zhou Peng basically is dwelling around the nail zone as the spacing isn’t ideal for Beijing and Sun and Li are overlapping. He talks defensively to Mudiay. He wants to be there if Marbury penetrates. Gao, livid for all the times he got beaten, moves his feet quickly. It almost looks like he’s bouncing on his feet. Marbury steps back for a 3-pointer, Gao contests wonderfully.
Yi makes sure to see where the shot is going. Near him, Zhai Xiaochuan probably is out of energy and doesn’t think he has a chance on the ball. The shot is off.
Zhu Fangyu, who was in the paint because of their zone defense, was ready to move to the opposite corner to contest a hypothetical Zhu Yanxi corner three. No penetration, no corner threes, though. Zhu F. can now jump and collect the rebound. There’s no one around him, no need to look for box outs.
Then Zhu Yanxi comes.
And he’s not boxed out. Zhu F. probably isn’t even remotely thinking about someone else grabbing that ball, and he doesn’t watch his back. Nor, for the matter, does he jump too high. There’s no need to, right?
Zhu Yanxi jumps, and gets airborne higher than Fangyu. He tips the ball. It goes in.
Guangdong’s season is over.
(you can watch the action HERE, starting at 2:14:00)