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Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Starbury vs. T-Mac, Beijing edition

By Henry Abbott

Charles Wharton is a longtime TrueHoop reader and an assistant professor at a Chinese law school who sends the following dispatch from Beijing, where Tracy McGrady's Qingdao Eagles recently took on Stephon Marbury's Beijing Ducks.

Chinese people really love the NBA and basketball, and they especially LOVE T-Mac, mostly dating back to his time on the Rockets with Yao Ming.

But the Beijing Ducks (named after a famous Chinese dish) also have a really strong following in the city, and Marbury has become extremely popular here for two reasons. First is actually that he’s fully embraced living in China and posts on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter/speaks about loving the country/etc., which has been really endearing. Secondly, on the court, he’s an excellent player who’s also an awesome teammate and appears to really like working with the Chinese players on his team (as opposed to, say, JR Smith, who put up crazy stats in China last year but also shot at will and earned a reputation for skipping practices).

The atmosphere in the stadium felt like a strange mix of a high-school basketball environment and an NBA game. There was blaring-loud American hip-hop music (including a team theme song that changed Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” to “Beijing JinYu,” the name of the team), cheerleaders throwing trinkets into the stands after a hype-man character encouraged everyone to “Scream!!!!!” Some of the crowd was in Beijing gear, others sported McGrady jerseys from the Rockets or Magic years. The stadium itself, though, was old and pretty small, with a few thousand seats -- concessions and the gift shop felt more like high school than the NBA.

All the players except McGrady were out on the court for about an hour before the game. When McGrady came out about 30 minutes before for the game, a buzz started -- whistling and mostly cheering. Some pro-McGrady signs appeared in the crowd. He and Marbury both jogged through warm-ups and shootaround with their teams, nothing special. Then with about 15 minutes until tipoff, the Beijing team started to do dunks as a part of their warmup, and the fans started getting getting even more excited, doing the And-1 Mixtape Tour-style “Ooooooo!!!” after each dunk.

When the game was supposed to start, all the players took their warm-ups off, but then the game had to be delayed two minutes ... because T-Mac’s jersey had no number on the back!

So he walked over to his team’s bench, and they took out some athletic tape and taped a backward "9" on his back, which looked like a "P."

Then, the game began. From the beginning, McGrady delivered.

Looking like he was in pretty good shape, he had a monster drive down the lane for a left-handed SMASH and got fouled in the early going (he missed the free throw, though). McGrady posted up, scored on turnarounds, and drained a long 3. It was like watching 90 percent of vintage T-Mac, and the fans (including me and my friend) were going wild. He was delivering!!

Marbury’s game was much more subtle -- he played a bit like Steve Nash in his prime, shooting very little but always pushing the ball quickly, making really smart decisions and consistently getting his teammates involved. Throughout the game, Beijing had extremely quick and crisp ball movement and often made the extra and extra-extra passes to get great shots like open 3’s and layups.

Yes, this is a “Starbury”we’re talking about.

At the end of the first quarter, McGrady’s iso-offense had led the Eagles to a 33-29 lead, with T-Mac scoring 16 of the 33. Then, the second quarter started, and everything changed. T-Mac and Marbury were forced to sit the whole second quarter because the CBA has limits both on how many foreigners per team (2) and also on minutes for the foreign players during games. The Eagles second foreign “star” player was none other than the former Lakers big man DJ Mbenga. Also worth pointing out is that all of the Eagles’ Chinese players were notably terrible when compared to the Ducks.

So during the second quarter, the Ducks were led by former Kentucky and NBA big man Randolph Morris, who’s been in China for a while and was surrounded by quality shooters who moved the ball and knew their roles. And they were taking on a disjointed offense centered on DJ Mbenga’s post game. Which was, as expected, a disaster.

By halftime, the Ducks had taken a 58-47 lead. Then, as the second half began and all four foreign players were allowed on the court for the whole time, the Ducks just further extended it. It was clear that they really knew how to play together -- they worked the ball through Morris in the post and also got him lots of open mid-range jumpers that he knocked down. They also had multiple, really-good spot-up shooters surrounding him. Marbury almost never shot from the outside, though, finishing with only about 12 points.

Meanwhile, at the other end, T-Mac continued in his lonely and futile quest. If he kept the ball and shot, it had a good chance of going in from anywhere. But if he ever passed, or if his team didn’t get him the ball, then teammates would miss open shots or turn it over. One-on-however-many was truly the team’s only good offense, and T-Mac made a noble effort of it, scoring 16 more in the third quarter to get to 32 while his team fell behind further.

But by the fourth quarter, the game was clearly over. McGrady did have one more MONSTER fastbreak dunk, but he eventually got into it with a Beijing player, earning a flagrant foul. Then one of his coaches got a technical for arguing about it, leading to four total free throws for Beijing. A lot of the most passionate Beijing fans started aggressively booing him at this point. By the end, the Ducks pushed their lead up further, and despite a useless comeback by Qingdao after the game was already decided, Beijing cruised to the finish.

The night overall was just really fun – the crowd was hyped up and into it, and McGrady and Marbury both played really well. T-Mac finished with 37, but his team lost 114-102 and is now 0-7 in league play. Beijing continued rolling to a 5-1 record.

If this is the future of basketball in China and even more late-career NBA stars coming here, the CBA could really emerge as a nice destination league, not unlike the MLS in America.