LOS ANGELES -- Chauncey Billups put a towel over his head and buttoned up his warm-ups with a stern look on his face. When he heard his name announced in the starting lineup at Staples Center for the first time in a month, he kept his head down and walked through his teammates like a heavyweight fighter headed toward the ring.
Even though it was the Los Angeles Clippers' final regular-season home game and the penultimate game of the season, Billups considered Tuesday's 93-77 win over the Portland Trail Blazers a preseason game.
Then again, Billups considers all games played before the postseason to be preseason games. That's what happens when you've been to the playoffs 12 years in a row, led your team to seven straight conference finals and back-to-back NBA Finals, and won an NBA Finals MVP.
"I always refer to the regular season as the preseason," Billups said. "That's just how I've been raised in the league. Everything is different in the playoffs and in playoff time. It's the best time of the year. Everything changes. The stakes are higher. The pressure is more intense. And our preparation should be more intense."
That might be true, but there is also something to be said for developing some semblance of consistency and chemistry with your teammates during the regular season. And for all the postseason experience Billups brings to the table, he hasn't been on the court very much for the Clippers during his two seasons in Los Angeles. He played in only 20 games last season before rupturing his Achilles tendon in February and being lost for the season. Before Tuesday's game, he had played in only 20 games this season as he came back from that Achilles injury and dealt with various other injuries.
"We've been trying to get Chauncey out there a lot," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's only played 20 games or so. He knows how to play. He gives us another dimension out there making plays off the basketball, shooting the basketball, but he's got to get out there and get his rhythm and his chemistry with the guys. We've been trying to incorporate that all season, but he's had his nagging injuries. It's unfortunate."
While Billups has battled to get back onto the court, Willie Green has played in 72 games this season and started 60 of them. Yes, Green has played in and started more games this season than Billups has in his two seasons combined with the Clippers. Despite developing that consistency and chemistry with the Clippers' starters, however, Green hardly plays when Billups is active. On Tuesday, Green went from averaging 18.5 minutes and 10.2 points per game this month to playing the final six garbage minutes of the game and scoring two points.
It's a difficult position for Del Negro to be in, as Billups is the far more accomplished player if you look at his résumé but Green is the far more experienced player when it comes to playing with this Clippers team. There is no need for adjustments with Green in the lineup, but with Billups taking Green's minutes, there is simply no time left for Green with Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe needing their share of minutes as well.
"It's been challenging all year," Del Negro said. "We've had enough injuries where we've been able to work through it. Willie deserves to play, and Bledsoe deserves to play more at times. Grant Hill is not getting a great opportunity, but every time we put him in, he's very productive. I'm just trying to manage it and going with the guys I feel give us the best opportunity. Whether it's the matchup, foul trouble, injuries, you deal with it and then you make those decisions and go with it."
The Clippers have made the decision that Billups is their starting shooting guard, will begin and end games with Chris Paul, and will play about 20 minutes per night as he eases back into the starting lineup before the start of the playoffs this weekend.
"I love this time," Billups said. "It gets physical. A team isn't going to run anything that you haven't seen or haven't scouted. It's more mental than anything. Those are some of the things I think I'm pretty good at.”
It took Billups some time to get his feet back under him Tuesday night. He missed his first two shots, both 3-point attempts, and had a difficult time keeping up with Will Barton, who scored all seven of his first-half points on Billups. With the ball in his hands at the end of the first half, Billups dribbled down the clock before passing off DeAndre Jordan's foot.
In the second half, however, Billups recovered and went between his legs for a beautiful pass to Blake Griffin for an easy dunk in the third quarter.
Billups finished the game playing 17 minutes, missing all five of his shots (four coming from beyond the arc) and scoring all four of his points at the free throw line.
The final box score, however, doesn't always measure the true effect Billups has on a game.
"He just gives us that calming presence," said Paul, who has called Billups his big brother and the best backcourt teammate he has ever had. "For me, when we get the rebound, I just run up the court and I know he's thinking like I'm thinking."
Billups was clearly rusty playing his first significant minutes in a month, but the Clippers didn't seem overly concerned with his performance heading into the last game of the regular season and the start of the playoffs this weekend.
"He's the least of my worries when it comes to somebody who's going to come in and contribute," Griffin said. "Whether he's scoring or not, his presence out there is an advantage for us."
Regardless of what Billups has done or hasn't done in the regular season, that's certainly what the Clippers are hoping to get from him once the playoffs start.
"The real season is coming up," Billups said. "And you got to play until that last bell rings."