Close to a Return

Chauncey Billups likes what he sees of Pistons, knows where he could help

Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups has been observing the Pistons' play while sidelined by injury.
Rocky Widner (NBAE/Getty)
Ever since Rodney Stuckey slammed his thumb in a car door and X-rays revealed Brandon Jennings’ cracked jaw within 30 minutes of each other a week into training camp, the Pistons have had beds filled in their guard infirmary.

One might be opening up soon, though.

Chauncey Billups, out three weeks with left knee tendinitis, practiced for the first time on Friday.

“It felt good today,” he said as the Pistons prepared to embark for Chicago and a Saturday night game with the Bulls. “I got quite a bit of the practice in and it felt pretty good. We’ll see. I know I’m not quite ready to play yet, but I want to see how it feels after pounding on it today. I’m really kind of leaning on Arnie (Kander, Pistons strength coach), but I’m encouraged that I felt good today and moved pretty well. A little tired, but that’s about it.”

Will Bynum remains out with a left adductor strain, an upper leg injury, though the Pistons don’t expect him to miss an extended period. It’s possible Billups could return at some point during the stretch of four games in five nights – all against potential playoff teams – that starts with a rough back-to-back with Chicago on Saturday followed by a Sunday date at The Palace with Miami.

It should be a driven Heat team, too, one coming off consecutive losses to the Pistons and Bulls.

“This is a tough week for us,” Billups said. “We’ve got to take one game at a time. I feel like we’re playing well right now and we’ve just got to keep on getting better.”

The Pistons, indeed, carry a three-game winning streak into Chicago. Andre Drummond is amid a remarkable stretch, averaging 21.7 points, 18.7 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots while shooting 68 percent in the three wins. Billups has been as fascinated as everyone else to watch the growth of his young teammate and believes as he learns more about the nuances of the game, that type of production will become more his norm than an outlier.

“He’s just got to learn to know when to do what,” Billups said. “There’s a time to be fast and a time to slow down and take your time. Only time is going to help that, but lately he’s just been playing great all over the place – offensively, defensively, locked in, been in tune to what we’re trying to do.”

And Drummond isn’t the only 20-year-old finding a comfort zone, Billups said. Rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went from the fringe of the rotation to the starting lineup when Billups went out Nov. 15 in Sacramento, has contributed points in spurts and plays with a consistently high motor.

“He’s been playing well,” Billups said. “I’m happy for him. He put the work in. I love to see kids put the work in and start reaping the benefits. He’s playing aggressively and I think the game is starting to slow down for him a little bit.”

Maurice Cheeks continued to give Caldwell-Pope chances even as he struggled with shot selection because of how his level of activity contributes at both ends. The Pistons’ defensive measurements have ticked up steadily over the past two or three weeks. They now rank 19th in defensive efficiency, a measure of per-possession production.

“I’m sure he has been a factor in that,” Cheeks said. “It’s kind of a group thing, but he is an aggressive player so he would have an impact on it.”

Caldwell-Pope’s defense was particularly noticeable in Wednesday’s win over Milwaukee, where he was glued to Bucks guards O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal for much of the night, limiting their production by preventing them from getting many touches.

“He’s pretty quick, pretty agile in not getting screened,” Cheeks said. “He limits catches. I think he learned that from Stuckey. Stuckey does a pretty good job of limiting guys from catching the ball. He’s one of those guys that denies passes pretty good.”

The rookie has done his part to prevent the Pistons from backpedaling in the standings while dealing with a depleted backcourt. The cavalry could be on the way soon, but Billups – to no one’s surprise – has found ways to help even while out of uniform.

“His voice has a lot of impact,” Cheeks said. “When he says something, the guys stop and they listen and pay attention to it. He helps in the huddles, just talking execution. He does a lot of things. He’s the first guy in the huddle, to my left or my right. He’s been very helpful for us while he hasn’t played.”

He’ll be even more helpful when he can play, though, and he knows where his experience will be best put to use.

“It seems like we’re starting to get to know each other better on the floor a little bit,” he said. “Starting to get to know how we need to play. We’ve got to get a lot better in the fourth quarters. We could have probably four more wins if we’d just be steady in the fourth – not great, just steady. I hate it, because that’s one of the areas I could really help us. But that issue is not going to go away. Experience is the best teacher, so you’ve just got to keep going through it.”