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PLAYING THE POINT for Larry Brown is not unlike dining with Miss Manners: You might be better for the experience, but you would hardly call it fun. " Coach Brown holds your feet to the fire on every play," says Detroit Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who scored a game-high 29 points on Sunday to lead the defending champions to an 89-76 series-tying road victory over the Indiana Pacers. "There are nights I go home not very happy with him. And I'm sure there are nights he goes home not very happy with me."
Game 4 of this Eastern Conference semifinal had to leave the coach thinking happy thoughts about his quarterback (happy being a relative term in Brown's world). It wasn't just that Billups poured in 15 points in the second half to ice the win. It was that he once again distinguished himself as the only Piston who can score consistently--even in a series that, in contrast to Phoenix- Dallas, more closely resembles mud wrestling than ballet.
Power forward Rasheed Wallace, so combative with the referees, is too laid-back on offense, content to launch threes instead of posting up. "I wasn't worth two cents," Sheed said--accurately--of his tissue-soft 13-point Game 3 performance last Friday, which Indiana won 79-74. Billups's backcourtmate, Rip Hamilton, runs to the point of exhaustion trying to free himself for open shots against the bruising Pacers, but he was only a combined 12 for 32 from the floor in Games 3 and 4. Small forward Tayshaun Prince didn't reach double digits in either game, and center Ben Wallace's offense comes and goes but mostly goes.
Throw in the horrible shooting of the Pacers (who made just seven of 36 three-pointers in the two games), and it was left to Billups (a game-high 23 in Game 3) to brighten a grim offensive landscape. He did all he could to run Brown's system, which preaches movement and unselfishness, but picked his spots for individual forays and assumed the scoring load when needed. Indeed, watching what Billups can do on his own--break his man down, post his man up, run his man off screens and break his man's will by hitting threes--one wonders how much more effective he would be if he were allowed more freedom.
The 28-year-old Billups surely wonders, too, for he has the swagger of a great player, not merely a good one who has played for five teams in eight seasons. He acknowledges that finding the balance between taking over and keeping Brown happy is difficult and--even after he was named last year's Finals MVP--ongoing. "But I have no doubt that my game has benefited from playing for Coach Brown," Billups says. "I love him to death."
While that may be true, there's a certain tension among the Pistons and in the Brown-Billups relationship. Rarely does a championship team have the capacity to look so god-awful when it has the ball, and we know whose feet are getting singed for that. "I'm toughest on my point guards," says Brown. "Everybody knows that. But it's not going to change." With Game 5 scheduled in Detroit on Tuesday, the Pistons are favored to reach the conference finals and face the Miami Heat, who went 8-0 through the first two rounds. It's impossible not to compare Motor City's gear-grinding with the ease with which the Heat manufactures shots, even without Shaquille O'Neal (battling thigh bruises on both legs) in the lineup.
Still, that struggle for points fits what Rasheed Wallace calls his team's "dirty-and-nasty" style. The Pistons will need both dirty and nasty if they meet the Heat, but they'll also need a reliable scorer. And at those moments Detroit will call for the gritty guy with the English butler's name. It might even be his coach who rings the bell. -- Jack McCallum