CHAUNCEY BILLUPS MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN
LOS ANGELES – The crowd’s reception for Chauncey Billups when he was introduced Wednesday for the first time this season as a member of the Clippers starting lineup was fitting.
It was as though the Staples Center faithful understood what Billups had gone through working back from a torn left Achilles tendon he sustained Feb. 6 of last season. They stood and applauded the veteran guard louder than superstars Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. Billups’ response during his first six minutes on the court dignified the ovation.
“It was huge to have Chauncey out there,” Paul said. “After player intros I went up to [Billups] and said, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting a long time to get you back out here so let’s go.”
And Billups got going right away. His initial touch came on the second possession of the game when he dumped the ball into the post to Griffin, who immediately kicked it back to Billups as the veteran guard shuffled to the middle of the floor. Without hesitation he fired away, connecting on the 3-pointer 1:03 into the game.
“I just, for one, was so excited to be back out there after such a long road back,” Billups said.
After missing a shot from behind the arc in transition on the next possession, he made his first move off the dribble, going right baseline on Josh Howard and in timeless Billups fashion swept his arms underneath his defender on the shot attempt drawing two free throws.
Billups finished with seven points, all in the first quarter, on 1-of-5 shooting and 4-of-4 from the foul line. He also had three assists, including a gutsy lob to DeAndre Jordan from about 35 feet to help seal the game with 16 seconds remaining. But Billups’ presence was felt throughout his 19:24 on the court.
“It’s like having a calming presence,” said Griffin, who had two of his nine field goals assisted by Billups. “He is the guy that is always encouraging you; the guy you always look to for advice. To have him out there settles us down a lot.”
The Clippers committed just 10 turnovers as a team, with Billups the only player with two. They had turned the ball over at least 15 times in each of their previous five games, including 20 in a 10-point loss to the Nets.
“It’s big for us," Jamal Crawford said. "He’s a veteran. He’s a leader. He’s one of the guys that we really respect here. I think what he does on the floor and off the floor is invaluable. Having him back makes everybody’s job a little easier.”
The fact that Billups returned so quickly from an injury that was originally thought to prevent him from coming back until as late as February or even potentially career ending is somewhat remarkable. He underwent surgery on Feb. 15 in Vail, Colorado, nine days after he went down, and returned to Los Angeles a few weeks later to continue rehab. In the offseason, despite fielding offers from other organizations, he returned to the Clippers on a one-year contract.
During Wednesday’s pregame news conference Del Negro said he was “proud” of Billups, adding, “It’s not a surprise [that he is back] because I think for a lot of people here because he’s been around know his character. He loves to play. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for the team. I’m happy for myself, the coaching staff, the fans, and the NBA that we’ll see him back on the court tonight.”
BIllups said he got back well ahead of schedule, but could have returned even sooner.
“I would have been back before this, but a couple of little small setbacks, which is expected,” Billups said. “I’m pretty sure there will be a few other things along the way as I recalibrate my body to playing and playing at an intense level of basketball.”
Billups and Paul sat next to each other at the postgame dais, finishing answers for one another, bantering back and forth, and seeming as familiar and comfortable as ever. After Billups was asked how he felt physically, Paul interjected, “He’s going to be hurting tomorrow. We just talked about that.”
Billups looked at Paul and grinned before answering. “Right now I feel good,” Billups said. “Granted I played 20 minutes, and there’s nothing like a game. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape right now, but there’s nothing like a real live game, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be sore in the morning and I’m pretty sure it will be like that for the first week or two, kind of like the guys are the first three days of training camp. I’m pretty sure I’ll experience that over the next couple weeks.”
Del Negro expects to exercise caution with Billups as he gets back into game shape. He said he would prefer to keep the 36-year-old’s minutes to around 20 per game. Willie Green, who was averaging 18.4 minutes per game in Billups’ stead, did not play Wednesday.
“Willie gives me everything he has and as a coach that’s all you could want,” Del Negro said. “He had his moments where he played very well and he had his moments where he wished he could have played a little better, but that’s everybody. It wasn’t for lack of effort or ability. He gives me everything in practice, his preparation is very good. He’s a great team guy and he understood the situation coming in and he’ll understand it now.”
Last season, Billups’ jersey hung in the locker next to Paul’s for the duration of the time he was out. On Wednesday he got to put it on for the first time in almost 10 months.
“This was the first time I was slipping my jersey back on and it felt good,” Billups said. “Just little moments like coming in and seeing my name on the board and who I’m defending and stuff was weird it’s been so long. Little things like that that I’ve got to get used to. Going out and shooting with the guys before the game. There’s just a lot of little weird things that it just takes a day or two to get back used to it.”