Billups claims he doesn't experience nervous time, even in the most hostile environments. "I don't know why that is," he said. "I see it happen to other people, in their eyes, their body language." Their stress gives way to his calm. As he senses that his teammates are shying away from the ball, he becomes more emboldened to take the shot himself. "You can see it coming," said John Hammond, a front-office executive with the Pistons for seven years before becoming the Bucks' general manager in 2008. "He has the ball in the middle of the break and the wings are running ahead of him and the defense is back. Some of the great guards throw ahead and let the wings make the play. Chauncey stops behind the three-point line and lets it go. That shot is as automatic as it gets."
It is the ultimate expression of confidence, passing up two points from close range for three from long distance. It is not the play point guards are taught at clinics, but it is the one that used to light up the Palace in June. With Billups, Detroit went to six consecutive Eastern finals, winning the championship in 2004. After he left they were knocked out in the first round. Would the Pistons still be playing if Billups had never left? "No doubt," McDyess said.
Billups gets credit for changing the culture in Denver, but more than anything he applied the finishing touch. After the Nuggets were swept by the Lakers in the first round last season, assistant coach Tim Grgurich told Karl, "We can't do this anymore." He was referring to the run-and-done system Karl had implemented two years earlier, when he tried to create Phoenix North and abandoned the defensive fundamentals that were the pillars of his career. Karl told his longtime lieutenant, "You're right."
While Karl was not about to install a half-court bump-and-grind, he had to persuade his breakneck team that possessions were to be valued and defense was worth playing, even if scoring averages were sacrificed. He and Grgurich set up individual meetings with players, bracing for resistance. Karl had a four-hour dinner with veteran big man Nenê at The Capital Grille in Denver, and it was a wonder they were not thrown out of the restaurant. "We yelled and screamed a little bit," Karl said. "He didn't say all nice things, and I didn't say all nice things." When the Nuggets reported to training camp, Karl put them through shell drills and rotation drills, old-fashioned defensive standbys.
Karl made the changes, and when Billups arrived five games into the season, he validated them. "I really didn't know how to play defense before Chauncey got here," says Smith. "He's the one who put the D in Denver." Nobody will confuse the '09 Nuggets with the '04 Pistons, but this season Denver allowed the lowest field goal percentage in the Western Conference, a harbinger of playoff success.
After Game 1 was over on Sunday, Billups found his wife and two of his daughters waiting for him in the stands at the Pepsi Center, still sparkling in their sequined jerseys. They walked out of the arena together, into a warm spring evening, big shots on the horizon.
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