Rarely does the game plan for a team playing the Pistons include
the word contain. After all, Detroit finished the season 26th in
the league in scoring and generally treats offense as a chore to
be completed before it is allowed to play defense again. But lo
and behold, much of the talk in the Orlando Magic locker room on
Sunday before Game 7 of the teams' first-round series was about
containing 6'3" point guard Chauncey Billups, who had poured in
40 points in Game 6. Not that it had any effect; despite being
chased by 6'8" Tracy McGrady for much of the game, Billups scored
37 on Sunday, leading the Pistons to a 108-93 victory and a
second-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Most of the attention in the series will rightly be on Allen
Iverson, who is going to rack up points, win or lose. But
Billups's output, while less consistent, could be more decisive.
Call it the Billups Barometer: Against Orlando he averaged 26.8
points on 49.3% shooting in the four wins; in the three losses
those numbers were 17.0 and 26.2%. During the regular season no
player in the conference was more important to his team as a
scorer: The Pistons won 69.2% of the time when he put up 20 or
more, the best mark for any player in the East.
That the 26-year-old Billups holds such sway is a bit of a
surprise. Detroit is his sixth team in six seasons, and he's so
accustomed to living in hotels and apartments that he hasn't even
looked into buying a place in Detroit. What's more, he'd never
been a starter for an 82-game season before coming to the
Pistons--and in this league, if a guy hasn't pulled that off in a
half-dozen years, it usually means his backside is indelibly
stamped PLACE BENCH HERE.
The rap on Billups was that he was more of a scorer than a
playmaker, but the Pistons needed points more than a point guard.
This was a team so offensively offensive that it held the Celtics
to 66 points in a playoff game last year and lost by two. So last
July 1, the first day of negotiations with free agents, Detroit
coach Rick Carlisle showed up at Billups's Denver home with a
number 1 jersey because, Carlisle said, Billups was the team's
No. 1 priority. Yes, it was hokey, but hokey can be very
effective. Billups, who played for the Minnesota Timberwolves
last season, signed a six-year, $34 million contract, fulfilling
Pistons G.M. Joe Dumars's off-season promise to acquire a bigger
point guard to take over for 5'11" Chucky Atkins. In Billups,
Dumars saw a player much like himself--a strong defender who
could also shoot threes (39.2% this year).
By midseason Billups was comfortable in his role, which teammate
Tayshaun Prince calls "a point-slash-scorer." Billups still isn't
going to inspire comparisons with Jason Kidd--he averaged a
paltry 3.9 assists this season, often makes poorly timed wing and
entry passes, and tends to hold the ball too long. But Detroit
can live with those shortcomings because he fills its most
glaring need: a go-to player. Six times during the regular season
Billups hit game-winning or game-saving shots, and he led the
league with 11 game-tying or lead-changing field goals in the
last two minutes of regulation and of overtime. "He comes out
like he wants to destroy you," says backcourtmate Rip Hamilton.
"You can feel his confidence."
The question now for the 76ers is, of course, Can they contain
him? --Chris Ballard
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS A CHAUNCEY PROPOSITION The offensively anemic Pistons are hard to beat when Billups is on a scoring roll.