LOS ANGELES -- When Chauncey Billups walked into the Clippers' locker room Saturday morning, wearing a dark blue suit and a walking boot on his left foot, he barely had time to look at his locker before Chris Paul went up to him immediately started critiquing his wardrobe.
“Already,” Billups said with a smile as he put his crutches down. “I haven’t been back more than three minutes.”
As soon as word spread Billups had arrived, players walked in from the training room and film room to give him a hug and welcome him back.
It was the first time Billups had been back at Staples Center since Feb. 2 after he ruptured his left Achilles tendon Feb. 7 in Orlando. Since Billups left the team, the Clippers were 9-11 and had lost nine of their last 14 games. They had also faded down the stretch in close games with an 8-8 record in games decided by five points or fewer.
Just seeing Billups back brought a smile to every player and coach in a Clippers locker room devoid of smiles in recent weeks. Less than 48 hours earlier, the Clippers met for over an hour after an embarrassing 91-87 loss to the Phoenix Suns, who were playing without Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
“It was great having Chauncey back,” Paul said. “I wish he would take that boot off and stop playing and get out on the court. We could use him but he’s being selfish.”
Paul joked with Billups about taking his boot off and putting his uniform on as the two sat in front of their lockers, which are next to each other. The Clippers have hung Billups' uniform up in his locker for every game, home and away, since he was injured and Billups smiled when he saw his No. 1 hanging when he walked into the locker room on Saturday.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Billups said. “I would like to be walking in and putting on my jersey of course and going out there and fighting with the guys. On the flip side, it’s just really good to see the guys.”
Watching the Clippers on television from his home in Denver had been almost as hard on Billups as his current rehabilitation. He could see the team was lost without him and there was nothing he could do from his couch as his left foot was propped up on a pillow in his living room.
“It’s been tough,” Billups said. “It’s a helpless feeling. Even though I’ve been in contact with the guys the whole way, they’ve been more worried if I was getting better and I’ve been more worried about what’s going on with the team. At the same time it’s been a struggle to watch us be inconsistent night in and night out. ”
Billups had a better view of the game Saturday as he sat alongside the Clippers’ coaches on the bench. He plans to be there for all home games the rest of the season but said his daily rehabilitation schedule will prevent him from traveling with the team.
Not even Billups’ presence on the bench could totally revive the slumping Clippers. Despite pulling out a 95-91 win against the Rockets, they made many of the same mistakes on offense and defense that have led to losses over the past month. Houston, playing without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, their top two scorers, and without Marcus Camby and Derek Fisher, whom they traded for Thursday, were in control for much of the game and jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first half before losing late.
“It’s just one win that helps us in the standings,” Paul said. “We have another one tomorrow and we got to get consistent. It’s one of those games where if we play all these close games, if they hit one more shot, maybe your story changes that quick. We have to get consistent and string together six or seven in a row and then we can talk.”
Even though Billups wasn’t able to contribute on the court, his advice to Paul in the fourth quarter when the Clippers were behind by six points with less than three minutes left, proved to be critical.
“He told me, ‘C, we need you to score, we need you to be more offensive-minded’ and I needed that,” Paul said. “I usually call him after every game and we talk about what he saw. It’s one thing to talk to him after the game when you can’t change what happens but now he’s here at the game and can help us.”