Name a great point guard throughout NBA history and a quick descriptive leaps to mind. Magic Johnson: well, magic. Steph Curry: shooter. Derrick Rose: explosive.
What would it be for Chauncey Billups?
Command and control.
“That team was always organized and under control,” said Stan Van Gundy, whose young Orlando teams were victimized by Mr. Big Shot – jersey now nestled in The Palace rafters after a rousing Wednesday night ceremony – and the Pistons. “He had control. He directed traffic and they were always settled. They were never running crazy. He really did a good job of running the show and keeping everybody in line.”
That’s exactly it. Chauncey Billups could hold a picnic amid a hurricane and not have a napkin ruffled.
A huge part of the Goin’ to Work Pistons’ identity was their defensive bent and the franchise gave a fitting nod to that component last month when they retired the jersey of Ben Wallace, their defensive anchor and first building block of that formidable five.
What Wallace was to their defense, Billups was to their offense. And no matter how good they were defensively, they didn’t pitch shutouts. They had to score. And in the cauldron of the playoffs, when every basket comes grudgingly, the precision with which their maestro conducted his orchestra was essential to their success.
He did hit a lot of big shots, of course – thus the nickname – but there’s a measure of irony to the fact that Billups’ greatness was less about his big moments than his utter day-to-day reliability. The man was a virtual metronome, his grounding a critical ingredient in the recipe, right next to Big Ben’s bottomless pride and Rasheed Wallace’s outrageous emotion and Rip Hamilton’s scoring energy and Tayshuan Prince’s disruptive defense.
They all had their roles and they understood them to the last detail and only that allowed a collection of semi-castoffs to collectively exceed the sum of their parts.
Further irony: Perhaps the searing memory of Chauncey Billups in Detroit was that half-court buzzer beater to force overtime in Game 5 of the 2004 conference semifinals against New Jersey.
But the Pistons went on to lose that game, in three overtimes, no less. And that looked like a death knell. They trailed the series 3-2 and had to win at New Jersey to stay alive, where they’d lost four straight playoff games over that season and the previous one – all by double digits and by an average of 16.3 points.
They almost got buried early in that Game 6, too, trailing 13-4 five minutes into the game. Understand the context. A nine-point lead in that series – where teams had already completed games with point totals of 56 and 62 – seemed insurmountable.
But the Pistons’ knees didn’t buckle, not for a second. That takes all of them, of course, but it especially requires the mettle of their leader, the guy with the ball in his hands, the point guard. If Chauncey Billups had shown the slightest bit of doubt or fear – and in the Meadowlands that night, where a blue-collar crowd was primed to celebrate a series-clinching win, it would have been very easy to show one or both – the game would have deteriorated from that point and ended in the same lopsided fashion as games 3 and 4, when the Nets won by 12 and 15.
That win launched them on the rest of their playoff run, the bloodbath with Indiana to win the East and the “five-game sweep” of the star-studded Lakers in the NBA Finals.
And the final minute of Game 6 was that Pistons team in a nutshell. Needing productive possessions to keep the Nets from overtaking them, the Pistons came down and ran their offense with cold-blooded precision twice in a row. Those trips ended with open jump shots for Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton, both good, and that type of execution under that level of duress just doesn’t happen without an aura of calm and confidence infusing a team.
Nobody was more responsible for that calm and confidence than Chauncey Billups, Mr. Command and Control. But Mr. Big Shot sure sounds better. So we’ll stick with that. But whatever you call him, he’s a Pistons legend, fully deserving of the ceremony that raised his jersey to the roof at The Palace, where it forever will keep Big Ben’s company. Chances are their buddies will join them one day.