BEIJING, Feb. 23 (Xinhua) -- With the 2016-2017 Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) regular season on the books, the first-round of playoff action, dubbed "the most intense in history," is set to start on Friday.
In the coming best-of-five CBA first round, the bottom half teams need to display their A-game to avoid elimination, while the top seeds will rely on endurance and stability to advance to the semi-finals.
Regular season champions Xinjiang are likely to sweep eighth-seeded Shandong. With former NBA center Andray Blatche and 2016 draftee Zhou Qi, Xinjiang finished the regular season with an 18-1 home record after taking consecutive victories in their last eight games, while comfortably defeating Shandong on both home and away courts. The sole concern for the Flying Tigers is the injury of forward Li Gen, who twisted his ankle in the last regular season match. Li might miss one or two playoff games but his absence won't have much effect on the deep-benched Xinjiang.
Shandong clinched a playoff berth by edging a provincial derby against Qingdao with Ding Yanyuhang's winning play. The 23-year-old forward scored 24.2 points per game, ranking first among home players. The rising homegrown star is most likely to be the Chinese MVP.
Shandong replaced less-than-satisfactory Justin Dentmon with more stable A.J. Price before the playoffs in a bid to put up a fight. The hot attacking form and the perseverance of Ding, who just received an invitation from the Dallas Mavericks to play in the NBA summer league, holds the key to Shandong's resistance to Xinjiang's push for the championships.
The clash between Guangsha and Liaoning is the closest among the first round match-ups. Liaoning and Zhejiang rank second and third respectively in the CBA scoring list, as they are both good at transition plays and fast break scoring. In their offensive head-to-head, the protection of defensive rebounds may be the difference between victory and elimination.
Liaoning advanced to the CBA finals for the past two seasons in a row but had their championship dreams quashed both times, while Guangsha was eliminated in the first round for two consecutive years, a glimpse of their disparity in playoff experiences.
Though the fifth-placed Liaoning suffers from injuries and inconsistency, Han Dejun's low-post dominance and the firepower from the league's most explosive trio of Lester Hudson, Guo Ailun, and Zhao Jiwei, will give the squad an advantageous position over the young Zhejiang team.
Despite only finishing the seventh in the regular season, defending champions Sichuan, who will meet second-placed Guangdong, have kept the morale high after an 8-1 record following the return of former American forward Mike Harris.
Guangdong ended its regular season with a straight seven game winning streak and won all of the 19 home games. Yi Jianlian, who returned to Guangdong after playing briefly for the Los Angeles Lakers during the pre-season in 2016, will encounter Iranian center and last year's finals MVP Hamed Haddadi. This match-up is the key to the result of the series.
The third-seed Shanghai is seeking to regain former glory when Yao Ming led the team to win the CBA title in 2002. The addition of the 2011 National Player of the Year in the NCAA Jimmer Fredette has helped Shanghai top the league after the first half of the regular season and finish third at 30-8, which is the best regular season for the team in 15 years.
However, Shenzhen's frontcourt depth won't allow backcourt-heavy Shanghai an easy victory. In addition, Shenzhen's homegrown talents, including Li Muhao, Gu Quan, and Meng Duo, have advantages over their Shanghai counterparts.
Shanghai's success largely relies on the performance Fredette and French prospect Guerschon Yabusele, the league's most efficient scoring duo that account for over half of the team's points. In other words, Chinese players like Liu Xiaoyu will have to stand out and give more bullets to Shanghai during the playoffs.