DENVER – The rehabilitation projects surround him, gifted underachievers and druggies, wrecked knees and wretched reputations. Before unearthing his greatness with the Detroit Pistons, Chauncey Billups(notes) had been considered a draft bust out of his hometown here. Yet now, he had returned to the Nuggets as a conquering hero, a champion, and the celebration of his influence has been just and exhaustive.
Yes, he has been to the conference finals for seven straight years, but he isn’t the Billups that played for the Pistons in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs. As Billups extended deep into those Eastern finals, he had started to fade. He wasn’t taking over games. Chauncey Billups wasn’t his old self, just kind of old.
So, there was Billups leaving this wild night on Monday to a standing ovation in the final minute of a 120-101 Game 4 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. He had gone 41 minutes without a turnover and scored 24 points. Make no mistake: This time, Billups goes the distance. Across the way in the Pepsi Center, Kobe Bryant(notes) was livid and Phil Jackson indignant and ultimately the Lakers have Billups to thank for getting into the West and getting in the way.
It’s 2-2 in the Western Conference finals, and the Denver schoolboy star has returned the elder statesman, responsible for turning a flawed, frenetic one-and-done playoff loser into a resilient championship contender. For everything Billups, 32, has done for these Denver Nuggets, he kept thinking that something else had been missed along the way.
What the Denver Nuggets had done for him.
“There’s been a lot said about what I’ve been able to do for these young guys,” Billups said. “What I’ve been able to do for this team. But nobody’s really talking about what these guys have done for me. They make me look three or four years younger. And they’ve kind of helped me to not revive, but kind of rejuvenate myself and what people think about the player I’ve become.”
The player he’s become is simple: a Hall of Famer. Perhaps he needed this second act in Denver for it to be true, but there’s a good chance that Denver is pushing his eventual Hall of Fame candidacy over the top. Billups has done enough on the back end of his career to overcome the stutter start on the front, the lottery pick turned journeyman bounced from Boston to Toronto, Denver to Minnesota, and finally to his redemption in Detroit.
He has been a godsend for Carmelo Anthony(notes) and J.R. Smith(notes). For everything that Denver coach George Karl ever preached on professionalism, it never truly resonated until Billups walked into the gym. The leader always allows the coach to coach, and that’s what happened here.
As the Nuggets tried to even the series on its way back to Los Angeles, Billups had never been so overbearing with his teammates. After that disappointing Game 3 loss, he worked these Nuggets over for two days.
“It’s funny because I kind of know what it’s like to be a coach now,” Billups said. “I say stuff sometimes and the guys get mad at me because I’m demanding. I’m real demanding.
“I know what this means. And I know the feeling when you get all the way to the top and win it.”
Billups was sitting on the interview podium with Smith now, an old champion and young rebel. For a moment, don’t think that Billups loves the way that Smith taunted the Lakers, the way that he preened when he hit all those huge shots on the way to his 24 points. That isn’t Billups' way, but he isn’t going to change these Nuggets. That was never his plan. He had come to Denver to do something else: Transform them.
Smith had been talking about how tough his coaches and teammates had been on him, how they stayed with him through bad shooting and bad behavior in the Game 3 loss. Billups turned to the kid, and asked him, “Where am I on that? Am on the teammate side or the coach side?”
Smith had to laugh.
“You might be in the middle,” he told Billups.
And then, Smith told everyone: “He got so mad at me, I had to put a towel over my head.”
With Anthony sick with the flu, and felled with a gimpy ankle, Billups made it his business to get the most out of Smith. All around Billups, these kids made him feel needed again. In a lot of ways, his work was finished with the Pistons. As much as anyone, Detroit GM Joe Dumars understood it.
Billups wouldn’t have been this sharp with them, because the Pistons' fabulous run had played itself out. Dumars was never wrong making that trade for Allen Iverson(notes). As constituted, Detroit was done competing for championships. Dumars needed to free himself of the two years and $23 million on that contract, turn the team over to Rodney Stuckey(notes) and create cap space for free agency. The immediate gratification on that trade would belong to Denver, never Detroit.
From the moment that Billups walked into the gym here, the Nuggets could see it. George Karl had a kindred spirit, and Melo had someone to teach him, and these Nuggets had a point guard to free them of playoff purgatory. Anthony insists that Billups has never come out and said it, but says, “I know we make him feel young again.”
Sometimes, these Nuggets will be bursting on the break, young legs on the relentless run and sometimes Anthony says that Billups will pull him aside and plead, “We gotta slow down. I can’t keep up with you guys, man.”
Once more, Chauncey Billups is deep in the NBA playoffs, deep into a championship run and keeping up is no problem. As much as anything, they kept him going when his career needed a push, needed a next act. Yes, Billups laughed, he’s riding his teammates hard now, and promises, “One day, these guys are going to thank me.”
For now, the Nuggets have Billups back home, back in the big game, back in the chase, and where else could this have happened for him? All this talk of what Billups had done for this franchise, well, he was glad to be asked finally what it had done for him. They’ve made him look younger, and feel it, and brought out of him his best basketball in years.
“I owe them a lot,” he said.
For now, Chauncey Billups owes them the light out of this series and into the NBA Finals.