On the evening of Monday, May 15, the fourth game of the 2022-23 CBA Finals was played. Liaoning Flying Leopards went into it with a 3-0 lead over series opponents Zhejiang Golden Bulls. The Leopards did not slack off, beating the Bulls 106-70 to complete a successful defense of the CBA League championship. Liaoning’s Zhao Jiwei won the title of Most Valuable Player in the Finals.
In the CBA’s 27 seasons, only seven teams have won the championship trophy. Before this season, only three had the honor of consecutive championships: Bayi Rockets (eight championships in total), Guangdong Southern Tigers (11 championships) and Beijing Ducks (three championships, won in four years under the leadership of foreign star Stephen Marbury).
Liaoning’s win this season made them the fourth team on this list. It was Liaoning’s third championship in total, putting them on par with the Beijing Ducks for all-time wins.
Liaoning have been riding strong momentum since the 2014-2015 season. They have finished in the top four in each of the eight seasons since. They achieved their breakthrough first championship win in 2017-18. In the past six years, they have reached the finals five times, winning three championship trophies.
12,000 fans witness the Championship defense
Ahead of Game 4 of the 2022-23 finals, Liaoning prepared special t-shirts for every fan in attendance at Liaoning Gymnasium, emblazoned with the team logo and the slogan “Liaoning can definitely do it”. Fans in the arena donned the t-shirts ahead of the game. Half an hour before tip off, the chant “I love Liaoning basketball” rang around the venue.
The atmosphere spurred the Leopards once the game started. After a strong start by the Golden Bulls, Liaoning quickly controlled the pace of the game.
During the break, fans sang along to Chinese singer Li Ronghao’s hit “The Dark Plum Sauce”. Li had played a concert locally in Shenyang the previous weekend. Romance continued in the stands, as the crowd witnessed two fans proposing to their girlfriends.
By the end of the third quarter, Liaoning had a 23-point advantage over the Bulls and some home fans were chanting that Liaoning were champions.
Less than halfway through the fourth quarter, Zhejiang replaced all their main players, marking the beginning of the celebration for the home fans.
After the game, the stands of Liaoning Gymnasium were boiling with fans chanting and celebrating, whipped up by the arena MC.
At the final whistle, Liaoning forward Li Xiaoxu smashed the ball into the floor, then joined his teammates in surrounding head coach Yang Ming and heaving him into the air.
Zhao Jiwei, who performed outstandingly in the finals series, was elected MVP of the finals for the second consecutive year. He said, “This award is the result of the joint efforts of the entire team. Thank you to my teammates for their efforts.”
All hands on deck for Liaoning
Zhao Jiwei stepped up to support Liaoning’s backcourt after star teammate Guo Allen missed most of the semifinals and finals due to injury.
Zhao made 11 appearances in the playoffs, playing an average of 41.3 minutes per game. In the finals series, he averaged 20 points, three rebounds, nine assists and four steals per game.
Zhao became the third player to win consecutive CBA FMVPs, after Liu Yudong and Zhu Fangyu. Liu and Zhu achieved the accolade while playing for two of the greatest squads in CBA history, Fujian Xunxing (2002, 2003) and Guangdong Southern Tigers (2008, 2009, 2010), respectively.
The absence of Guo Allen was a major challenge for Liaoning's offense, but allowed young star Zhang Zhenlin to step forward. In the last two games of the semifinals, Zhang scored more than 20 points in both games, pulling his team back from the edge of defeat. He also became the first domestic player in history to achieve a triple double in the CBA Finals, with a "13+10+10" score in the first game of the series.
Zhang (24 years old) has long been the great hope for the future of Liaoning. From the day he joined, it was considered that he would eventually become the leading player in the team.
Veteran Han Dejun (36 years old) this season posted his weakest figures since 2010-11, but the data mattered little. As the captain and main center of Liaoning, Han’s position is beyond measurement by numbers. In the eyes of Liaoning fans, Han Dejun is a reassuring guardian of the basket.
Han made 10 appearances in the playoffs, averaging 23.8 minutes per game and contributing 7.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. Known for his fighting spirit on the court, during the finals he fearlessly took on young and powerful opponents such as Hu Jinqiu and Yu Jiahao.
Due to injury, Guo Allen missed more than a third of Liaoning’s games this season. In the playoffs, he appeared only six times, averaging 13.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 27.2 minutes per game. His absence caused many to doubt Liaoning’s prospects for defending the title.
However, in the fourth game of the finals, Guo scored a game-high 24 points, drawing chants of “MVP” from the home crowd.
Guo, wearing the number 13 jersey, has been in the CBA for 13 years, and his position in the Liaoning team no longer needs to be proven. The guard, who is about to turn 30, has become a legend of the CBA. By the time he retires, it is expected that he will hold many team records.
The keys to success: Confidence, will, import players and fans
Despite the absence of key man Guo, Liaoning crushed Zhejiang in the Finals series. The difference in ability between the two sides is not as big as the score suggests; it was Liaoning’s temperament and experience that led them to such a comprehensive victory.
This Liaoning team has had the joy of winning the championship in recent finals. But more importantly, they have also experienced the regret of losing. Veteran players like Han Dejun and Li Xiaoxu have experienced five CBA Finals defeats. Such experiences are wealth. Liaoning’s painful memories have turned into experience and resilience. In the four finals games this year, they showed confidence, maturity and mental strength, which ultimately led them to defend their championship.
Compared with their previous two championships, this was not a straightforward season for Liaoning. At the beginning of the season, they faced huge difficulties. Eric Morand and Han Dejun suffered injuries one after another and, at one point, Liu Yanyu was the only active center on the team.
During the regular season, Liaoning were defeated by Guangdong and suffered a disastrous 42-point defeat to Zhejiang Golden Bulls.
In both of Liaoning’s two previous championship wins, they had a fully fit squad during the playoffs. This time, they suffered a heavy blow in the second game of the semifinals, with the injury to Guo Allen.
Going into the fourth game of the semifinals against Zhejiang Lions, 2-1 down in the series and without Guo, few believed that Liaoning would prevail.
However, standing on the edge of a cliff, Liaoning fought back with great perseverance. After going eight points behind in the first half, Liaoning won the third quarter with an incredible score of 29-10, shattering their opponents and reversing the momentum of the entire series. The game showed a team that refused to be defeated.
It was therefore both unexpected and entirely reasonable that Liaoning should sweep Zhejiang in the finals. At this stage of the competition, it is often about who has the strongest will and desire to win. Liaoning’s steadfast will was a central reason for the championship win.
Another big reason for Liaoning’s success has been the performances of their foreign import players. Kyle Ferguson and Eric Morand have made significant contributions over the past two championship-winning seasons.
Ferguson does not need the ball in his hands to be effective, can switch at will between having the ball and not having the ball, and is willing to do the “dirty work” in defense, which is rare among small foreign players in the CBA.
Morand has a large defensive area, speed and strong ability to protect the basket. He also attacks the basket when he should at the offensive end.
This foreign aid combination may not be the best ever seen in the CBA, but it perfectly complements the shortcomings of Liaoning’s domestic players, and has been an important part of the championship-winning puzzle.
Finally, Liaoning’s extraordinary fan support has to be mentioned. Liaoning fans organized to attend all away games this season, which is unique in the CBA. This strong fanbase has provided a soil for their team that has allowed it to take root, absorb nutrients and thrive.