Playoff observations: Billups not acting his age in sparking Denver
Chauncey Billups has played the best among playoff team's top PGs
Courtney Lee showed his mettle in Miami's victory over Atlanta
Three underdogs get their home crowds behind them Thursday
Five NBA playoff observations from the night that featured heroes better suited to a Jane Austen novel (Chauncey and Courtney), a torch not quite passed in Miami and a couple of flipping birds:
Billups is 32 years old, which could earn him a few jabs as "Grampa'' among the coltish point guards running free through this first week of NBA playoffs. I'm pleading guilty as charged, too, because when a radio host rattled off the names of the game's new breed Wednesday -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Rodney Stuckey -- and pressed me to choose the one with the brightest team and individual future, I caved like everyone else and went with Rose, influenced by his dynamite playoff debut Saturday in Boston, his Rookie of the Year status and the talent and commitment working for him in Chicago.
The correct answer, though, might have been g) none of the above. Billups wasn't on the sports yakker's list and I didn't catch it, which might be one small example of what has the Denver Nuggets' point guard so darn driven through two playoff games this spring. At 32, Billups is a generation removed from most of the point guards cited above. What he has done for the Nuggets, though, is as impressive and as invaluable as anything the kiddie corps has pulled off. We need not even go to his résumé for the All-Star invites, the Finals MVP trophy or, of course, the ring.
In leading Denver to a 2-0 lead over New Orleans, Billups has outscored Paul 67-35, picked apart the Hornets' defense and, in a dozen ways, led this talented but playoff-challenged Denver club in ways it hasn't been led before. His best work Wednesday night came in the third quarter, after he already had scored 18 by halftime. There was a pull-up jumper in transition to reward Nene's block on David West and get the Nuggets' lead up to 69-58. Next, a pair of free throws. Moments later, it was a pull-up three-pointer to push the home team to 78-62. He spent much of the fourth quarter on the side in a T-shirt and, frankly, could have stayed there, the Nuggets' final margin of 15 points nearly as comfy as their 29 in Game 1.
Oh, and Billups is 19-of-19 from the foul line through the two games, with nary a turnover.
Factor in the play and likely fate of the team that shed him back in November, the Detroit Pistons, and there's no one who deserves to gloat and drop an "I told ya so'' like Billups right now. Which, true to his nature, he won't.
2. Courtney Lee got a whole two points in the Rookie of the Year balloting released Wednesday, which put him in an 11th-place tie with Miami's Mario Chalmers. Suffice it to say, Orlando players, coaches and fans didn't have a vote. Neither, for that matter, did Philadelphia's Andre Miller.
Miller, if he were being honest, would have to credit Lee for the defensive work he did in the Magic's 96-87 victory (RECAP | BOX) at Amway Arena. The 76ers' point guard scored 13 of his team's first 17 points in what looked like it might be a disturbingly easy Game 2. But coach Stan Van Gundy switched Lee from hapless Willie Green to Miller, flopping Rafer Alston to Green, and Miller's scoring pace and impact lessened considerably. The veteran scored 17 of Philadelphia's final 70 in the same time Orlando was scoring 86, and Lee wound up with 24, his most since arriving as the No. 22 pick out of Western Kentucky last June.
No wonder a handful of NBA execs were burning up the phone lines on draft night last year, trying to beg, buy or steal an extra first-round slot to grab Lee. His clear-eyed work at the task put before him was a man's performance, especially with Dwight Howard limited by foul trouble (11 points, 10 rebounds) and relegated to the bench for the final 3:11 after picking up his sixth. All Lee did -- in addition to his jumper after Philly had closed to 72-67 and his three-pointer that made it 79-69 -- was perform like the night's best rookie the same day that Rookie of the Year was awarded and serve as Orlando's defensive player of the game while the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year spent nearly 18 minutes sitting on the side.
That's not meant as a knock on the Heat's rookie forward at all; Beasley contributed 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench in Miami's 108-93 series-evener (RECAP | BOX). But his club was a minus-2 while he was on the court against Atlanta. In the 26 minutes Haslem played -- his first game after having six stitches removed from the hand laceration he suffered late in the regular season -- Miami was plus-17. Add them together, it's no coincidence you get the final margin.
Haslem was at his best down the stretch, immediately after the Hawks had pulled within 94-89. First, he hit a jumper from the right side with 4:35 left. Next trip down, Haslem scored from the right elbow. And at 101-91, he got an offensive rebound that chewed up clock on the increasingly frustrated Hawks.
4. Binoculars were in order, given all the fine-feathered friends on display Wednesday.
In Atlanta, it was Spirit, the Hawks' mascot -- which happens to be a real live hawk rather than some furry or inflated man-stuffed character -- dominating the proceedings for a spell when he strayed from his usual pregame flight pattern. Spirit veered onto a camera atop one of the shot clocks and delayed the game briefly until he could be coaxed to his handler.
Later in Denver, the Birdman of Altitude, Chris Andersen, did to New Orleans' Paul what Atlanta's Josh Smith -- reluctant to trend anywhere near Spirit -- feared the fierce hawk might do to him. Andersen, who had toppled over Paul at one whistle in the first half, lost his balance later and nearly hauled Paul to the floor by his neck, picking up a technical near the end of the third quarter.
5. Thursday's schedule. The underdogs get their home crowds behind them now as three series shift into Game 3 mode. Utah needs the most help, of course. The funny thing is, the way the Lakers and the Cavaliers are rolling, the two teams everyone wants to see meet in the Finals -- at least for the showdown of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- could play the fewest games through three rounds and spend the most idle time waiting for all the tomato cans to sort themselves out. If one or both of those top seeds blows through in a fo', fo', fo' sort of way, we'll have to settle for quality in the Finals vs. quantity of seeing them in a maximum number of games.
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