Billups Gives Clippers Added Dimension
LOS ANGELES -- We've seen the Los Angeles Clippers fly so high, winning 17 consecutive games earlier in the season, that we fail to view them as we should: as a work in progress.
This is a team that has played only six games with its true starting shooting guard, Chauncey Billups, who has played only 26 games at that position.
What will the Clippers look like when Billups feels comfortable, up to speed and completely healthy?
Well, if their 106-96 victory over the Houston Rockets is any indication ... hold on a minute; this one wasn't an indication of anything. James Harden didn't play for the Rockets because of an ankle injury he had suffered against the Golden State Warriors the night before. The Clippers scored an absurd 46 points on 77 percent shooting in the first quarter, a pace they couldn't come close to maintaining the rest of the game, let alone expect to duplicate this season.
That's why the takeaway from this game has to be Billups. He won't always be this accurate -- 6-of-9 on field goals, including 4-of-7 on 3-pointers -- either. What he can be is a steadying influence, a trusted wing for Chris Paul and, most of all, the provider of a little more potent starting lineup, tilting the balance toward the right mix for the playoffs.
The Clippers' bench has been the story for much of the season and especially was the first month. But benches don't carry the day in the playoffs, in which they're more likely to face the opposing team's starters. That's where the Clippers can take encouragement from this game. This victory came on a night Vinny Del Negro called his second unit's performance "poor," adding, "I don't think they played with a lot of urgency."
He sure had plenty of praise for Billups, who scored 10 of his 19 points in the first quarter.
"[He] takes pressure off everybody," Del Negro said. "He can get Chris off the ball a little bit. He makes great decisions. He spaces the court. He knows time and score. When he's shooting like he was tonight, it gives us another weapon."
Finally, Del Negro reduced it to this: "He knows how to play."
Basic terms are the best way to describe a player who chooses to break the game down to its simplest components. That's the way Chris Paul wants to discuss playing with his backcourt mate.
"It's not that hard," Paul said. "If you watch and play enough, we're both point guards and we're used to running the show, and I think we've both seen everything that you can possibly see."
Only the view from the shooting guard spot looks a little different to Billups. He made the switch last season, after 14 years of running the 1, following the Clippers' acquisition of Paul. He had only 20 games of training at his new spot before he went down with a torn Achilles tendon, from which he finally returned Nov. 28.
"It's very difficult," Billups said. "You look at my situation, I've been a point guard my whole career. I had a lot of advantage at that spot. I'm bigger and stronger than most guys. I can create. I can out-think most teams."
At shooting guard, "I'm smaller than pretty much everybody I guard," Billups said. "I don't really have the ball in my hands to create and make plays.
"As long as I'm on the court, I'm going to find a way to be effective. That's just been my mindset."
The other question is, how long can he be on the court? He went down again with peroneal tendinitis in his left foot and has been hampered by a bad back. He just returned to action in the midst of the Clippers' Grammy road trip, although he was held out of the second game of a back-to-back set. He says he's ready to take that next step now and vowed to play in Thursday's game against the Lakers.
Billups compared the aches and pains he's experiencing now to the typical soreness most players have during training camp.
"I'm waking muscles up that haven't worked in a long time," Billups said.
He thinks he'll be back at full speed in a month.
Can the Clippers count on that? Billups is 36 years old and has played 1,008 regular-season games. He also has played in 140 playoff games. It's that playoff experience that the Clippers truly value (it's noteworthy that his playoff average of 17.8 points per game is 2.3 points better than his regular-season average).
When the persistent Rockets wouldn't go away, Del Negro sent Billups and Paul back in during the fourth quarter "to get those last few minutes under control."
Billups hit one last jumper to put a bow on this game with 3:54 remaining. Of course, they don't call him "Mr. Big Shot" for making buckets with a double-digit lead in February. You won't find much statistical evidence of his impact (in Wednesday's game, for instance, he had a plus/minus of plus-8, the only Clippers starter in single digits).
There's one key figure when it comes to Billups: The Clippers are 5-1 when he plays this season. The question is which will prove to be more telling, the winning percentage or the total number of games.
2. Around the Association
MVP: Deron Williams who? C.J. Watson proved to be more than a serviceable replacement, tallying 25 points and a 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his third start of the season. Watson led the Nets to a season-best 119 points with an 87.5 effective field goal percentage.
X factor: The Nuggets went into this game as the second-best third-quarter team, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.7 points, while the Nets ranked 28th in average third-quarter difference (minus-1.9). The Nets stretched a five-point halftime lead to 14 after the third quarter.
That was ... flabbergasting: Both Denver and Brooklyn went into this game ranked in the bottom third of the league in 3-point percentage, but they combined to make 28 of 44 (63.6 percent) triples. More points were scored at the free throw line or behind the 3-point line (117) than there were inside the arc (110).
MVP: In a game that lacked anything of value, Kevin Garnett rose from the muck to score 12 points (eight of them coming on 4-of-5 shooting in the fourth quarter) and grab 11 rebounds.
That was ... messy: After shooting 33 percent from the floor in the first half, including a 2-for-18 stretch filled with botched jumpers in the second quarter, the Celtics dipped down to 28 percent late in the third quarter. Not pretty, but somehow they bounced back, finishing at a sparkly 37 percent.
Defining moment: Already short-handed in the backcourt with no Leandro Barbosa or Rajon Rondo, the Celtics ran into trouble when Avery Bradley picked up his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half. The result was an offense that looked especially lost, scoring eight points in the third quarter.
MVP: Josh Smith, when he is hitting jumpers, is a rare, but frightening, sight. Smith had 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists (in only three quarters), his third such game reaching those stat totals this season. The only player who has more? LeBron James with five.
Defining moment: In the past, when Dwight Howard was in Orlando, the Hawks would absolutely get killed on the boards. Not this time, with Dwight in L.A. The Hawks ended the first quarter shooting only 33 percent but held a 25-19 lead thanks to eight offensive rebounds.
X factor: Al Horford and Josh Smith usually work well together, but they've never played a game like this before; this was the first time in their careers that both players had at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the same game. (Horford had 26, 12 and five.)
MVP: It's Tony Parker's world; we're all just tweeting about it. Parker led the Spurs (you know, again) with 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds, including the game-winning assist. Only a natural disaster can slow him at this point.
Defining moment: On their last offensive possession, Gregg Popovich switched Kawhi Leonard as inbounder on the play with Matt Bonner and put Leonard in the opposite corner. The play was designed to get an open 3 in that corner, and Leonard drained the game winner.
X factor: In addition to the previously mentioned game winner capping off his 13 points, Leonard grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked four shots against the Cavs. His confidence and comfort level in the NBA continue to expand as we get closer to the playoffs.
MVP: In a game both teams wish could be eradicated from their fan bases' collective memories, Alan Anderson was the lone bright spot for the Raptors, notching six treys and 26 total points on 10-for-16 shooting.
Least valuable player: It's a good thing chants of "L-V-P" haven't come into vogue because Carmelo Anthony certainly merited such derision in this game; not that that would have dissuaded him from bricking 19 of 24 shots and three free throws.
Defining moment: Toronto led by three with 2:59 to go, but the Knicks missed two open 3-pointers and botched two breakaway layups before John Lucas' fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired at the 59-second mark mercifully decided the proceedings.
MVP: Vinsanity reigned supreme in Dallas on Wednesday night. Vince Carter poured in 26 points, his second-highest point total of the season, off the Mavs' bench. The 36-year-old veteran really got going in the third quarter, in which he scored 17 points.
Defining moment: After making his sixth trey of the night, Carter shrugged a la MJ as the third quarter was winding down. And not only did the shot cap off a monstrous period for Carter, but it signified another milestone. With the basket, Carter passed Larry Bird for 29th on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
X factor: Three-point shooting was the difference. The Kings went just 4-of-16, while the Mavs torched the nets and went 13-of-34. Dallas broke through from long range in the third quarter, in which it made six of 10 from deep.
MVP: Paul George prepped for his first All-Star appearance by getting his first career triple-double (23 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists). Just for giggles, he added two steals. Indy outscored Charlotte by 28 points while he was on the floor.
Defining moment: A George Hill 3 on the heels of an Orlando Johnson bucket made it a 15-point Pacers lead with 11 minutes left in the game. The Pacers coasted home from there.
X factor: Tyler Hansbrough was a last-minute replacement in the starting lineup for David West. He scored 15 first-half points on his way to a season-high 19 points. He added 10 boards to make it a double-double.
Defining moment: This was like having five LeBrons on the floor. The Clippers scored 46 points in the first quarter, shooting 17-for-22 from the field to record their highest-scoring quarter since 1986.
MVP: Caron Butler. It's fitting that in a game essentially won in the first quarter, Butler would be the guy doing the damage. Always a hot starter, Butler rattled off 17 first-quarter points to lead the way.
That was ... a sprintathon. What happens when two teams start this fast? They eventually slow down. The Rockets held their own on the break, but they missed James Harden a ton in the half court.
3. Wednesday's Best
4. Wednesday's Worst
In an apparent duel to see who could miss more shots, Melo edged Toronto's Rudy Gay 19-17. Despite taking an elbow to his biceps that hindered his stroke, Melo kept hoisting to the tune of 5-for-24 in a 92-88 home loss to the Raptors.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I really don't know. I'm feeling good, but like I said, if it's where it's taking me a long time and I'm still not feeling right, I don't mind missing this year."
-- Derrick Rose, on whether his knee will recover enough for him to play this season
8. Like Mike, Ahead Of Larry
9. Stat Check
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around The Association
Most Valuable Players: Greg Monroe (16 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two steals) and Emeka Okafor (20 points and nine rebounds). I don't usually like to award co-MVPs, but not only did each play well, Monroe and Okafor had a large hand in the other looking good, too.
Defining moment: A game after shooting 0-for-8, Will Bynum (20 points and eight assists) continued to show how fearless he plays. With the game tied at 76 midway through the fourth quarter, Bynum went on a personal 6-0 run, spearheading an 11-0 Detroit run that broke open the game.
X factor: Jose Calderon. The Wizards seemed intent on taking away Calderon's passing options, and they held him to three assists and four turnovers. But Calderon is also a quality 3-point shooter, and Washington failed to stick with him beyond the arc. Calderon made six of nine 3-pointers and scored a game-high 24 points.
MVP: Anthony Davis. "Skynet" continues to evolve and was a bright spot in a game that had very few. The long-limbed rookie had 21 points and 11 rebounds while showing off a very impressive offensive arsenal.
X factor: Portland's shooting. Undoubtedly tired on the second night of a back-to-back and perhaps looking forward to the rest provided by the All-Star break, Portland shot 32 percent from the field and 2-of-17 from deep.
That was ... painful. And I'm not just talking about both teams' shooting percentages in the first half. Portland saw several of its players, including Wesley Matthew and LaMarcus Aldridge, leave the game due to injury.
MVP: Paul Millsap scored 21 points, grabbed four offensive boards, blocked a pair of shots and was an integral facet of Utah's swarming paint defense. His team-high plus-12 was indicative of his persistent, catalyzing energy.
X factor: Utah's deep size. Tyrone Corbin's ability to bring size off the bench overwhelmed the undermanned and undersized Wolves. Enes Kanter, DeMarre Carroll, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks were all instrumental in Utah's decisive 14-4 fourth-quarter run. The Wolves simply could not keep the Jazz off the boards and out of the paint.
Defining moment: With 30 seconds left and Utah up 90-86, a fire-breathing Ricky Rubio rips past Burks at midcourt and seems poised for an uncontested layup. But Burks flies in from behind to reject Rubio's layup; the Wolves never got that close again. That play not only saved the game for the Jazz but also exemplified their game-long dominance at the rim.
MVP: Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The Bucks' explosive/odd-couple backcourt shot a combined 1-of-8 in the first quarter, before going off down the stretch -- coupling for 44 points in the game's final three periods and leading Milwaukee to a victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat W in a game it didn't lead until the fourth.
X factor: With Larry Sanders out with a sore back, Philadelphia devised a sound plan: attack. It worked fine, up until the moment it didn't. After shooting 19-of-34 in the first half, the Sixers connected on just 35 percent of their shots after the break and were blocked 10 times. Oh well, back to long jumpers.
That was ... a dish served cold: Facing his old team and matched up for most of the night against the guy he was dumped for (Spencer Hawes), Samuel Dalembert was tremendous. The Haitian scored 17, pulled down a season-high 14 rebounds (seven offensive) and blocked three shots.