The Bucks/Warriors game in Beijing Saturday morning was the most exciting exhibition game I’ve ever seen. Granted, that’s not saying much, but there were three incredible buzzer-beating, lead-changing shots in the last 24 seconds.
Most of the team’s starters had long since retired to the benches when the sweet-shooting Warriors big man Rob Kurz (who is probably soon to be cut) drilled a three pointer to tie the game. After a time out, the Buck Matt Freije dribbled down, backed in and nailed a tough fade-away with 1.4 seconds left. The Bucks bench exploded, leaping up and greeting Freije like a conquering hero.
Coming out of a timeout, Kurz caught, faked a shot, dribbled and nailed a three to win the game–if that sounds like a lot to do in 1.4 seconds, it was; seemed like a light clock start. The Bucks all looked stricken while the Warriors’ bench exploded onto the court, tackling Kurz and leaping and celebrating like they had just won the title. I have never, ever seen a celebration remotely like this in an exhibition game. I assumed it was due to the added significance and drama of playing in China.
At a postgame press conference, assistant coach Keith Smart–who seemed to coach the entire game, with Nellie sitting stoically on the bench like a turtle neck-clad Buddha–said that while the game’s location did lend it added intensity, his team was also unusually close and was genuinely excited for one another.
The game’s real stars were the Warriors’ Stephen Jackson, Corey Maggette, the Bucks’ Charlie Villanueva, who scored 26 and looked smooth and efficient, and Michael Redd. But the most popular player on the floor was rookie Joe Alexander.
Alexander grew up in Beijing, living here from 1996-2002, when he returned to the U.S. to finish high school and give him a better shot at a D1 scholarship. His family still lives here and Alexander took the mic and addressed the crowd in Mandarin before tipoff – a neat little parlor trick that the NBA had Joe perform as often as possible while the teams were in China. It worked; the crowd went nuts.
Alexander’s presence saved the NBA’s bacon a bit; the Bucks were selected as one of the China Games participants because they boasted Yi Jianlian, who was, of course, traded to the Nets in the offseason. His absence contributed to a surprising lack of buzz about the game. The stands were only about 70 percent full and it really never quite caught fire locally.
“Without Yi and without a big star like Kobe or LeBron, it’s hard to get people excited–especially in Beijing,” said Shen Zhiyu, lead basketball writer for Titan Sports, the nation’s largest sports newspaper–and publisher of Chinese SLAM.
Anyhow, Alexander looked really solid. He came in a few minutes into first quarter and right away hit a couple of shots, got an assist, played solid D on fellow rook and made a couple of good decisions, for instance notably passing in the air to an open Luke Ridnour when he went up for a jumper and found Anthony Randolph blocking his path. He also had a shot blocked by Randolph when he tried to take it to the hole, but most importantly, he looked confident and calm and not at all jittery or overwhelmed. In the second half, he came in and gave the team another boost, including a sweet breakaway jam. He finished with 14 points and two steals.
Randolph also looked strong. He was a bit lost at times, but has the potential to be a defensive force. He had nine boards and four blocks in 20 minutes, including one spectacular mid-air swat that fed Maggette for a breakaway.
The day before the game, the Bucks ran an hour-long program with 50 Special Olympics students. They did a great job and deserve kudos for their enthusiasm. My friend George Smith, who runs the special Olympics here, said it was the most involved he had ever seen a group of professional athletes be at such an event
Redd, Ty Lue, Dan Gadzuric and Villanueva deserve special shout outs for their enthusiasm.
At the end of the session, commissioner David Stern arrived. Alexander introduced him in Chinese and as he spoke, Stern stood there smiling so widely I thought his face might split in half. A Chinese-speaking American player is a dream come true for the League and Stern said as much.
“It’s wonderful that Joe Alexander speaks Mandarin,” he said.