Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action...But Where's Chauncey??

It remains one of the most puzzling box score lines in NBA history.

It was 2005, and the Pistons were entering a Game 7 showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. This was for everything.

The Pistons win, and they secure their second straight championship, placing them among the immortals in NBA lore.

Lose, and it's another could-be title slipping through their fingers in a pseudo-dynasty that has come to be defined by them.

Handling the ball at the point that night was the same guy that did it for so many years. Chauncey Billups. He'd been named Finals MVP just one year ago when he spearheaded the Pistons' effort in completely dismantling the Lakers.

In this series against the Spurs, Chauncey was running hot and cold, but there was one thing you could count on. He'd want the ball when it mattered most. If he went down, he was going down swinging.

In the Game 5 heartbreaker at the Palace, Big Shot hoisted 26 times.

In the must-win affair in Game 6, he remained aggressive, putting up 16 shots, and drilling 5 of 9 from downtown.

The Pistons couldn't win without him having a great night, and he knew it.

There was a reason they called him Mr. Big Shot. While other players tensed up as the stakes got larger, Chauncey was always one to embrace that moment.

Which is what makes that Game 7 box score so hard to understand.

In a night that would boggle the minds of Pistons fans for years to come, Chauncey logged 40 minutes of court time and shot a lifeless 3 of 8 from the floor. He attempted just three of his signature attempts from long range, making none. Defensive specialist Lindsey Hunter took just as many shots as Billups in half the minutes. It was Un-Chauncey like in every sense of the word.

The lights were brightest, the stage was set, and the man that supposedly lived for moments just like this simply retreated to the background and let the other players decide his team's fate.

He was supposed to devour that kind of situation. Instead, he was paralyzed by it.

I didn't recognize the man wearing the "Pistons 1" that night. And on Wednesday in Los Angeles, with the Western Conference championship hanging in the balance, that shadowy figure emerged again.

And exited without so much as a peep.


In a best of seven series, there is no more pivotal point than Game 5 of a deadlocked affair.

The road team, in this case the Nuggets, knew in their hearts that they had to steal this one and finish things off at home. You aren't going into Kobe's house, with Kobe's referees, and winning Game 7.

Will not happen.

Which is why everyone knew that this game meant everything.

Early on, it looked like Chauncey Billups was well aware of these circumstances. He came out firing.

On Denver's first possession, he found himself being blanketed by Derek Fisher. Didn't matter.

This is his time. Elevate and release. Nothing but net from 26 feet.

Just one minute later, Chauncey was attacking again. All the way to the rim for a layup in traffic.

He was feeling good. You got the sense it might be one of those special Chauncey nights.

Like the time the Pistons ventured to Orlando, trailing 3-2, praying they would avoid the ignominy that comes with being knocked out in the first round as the conference's top seed. Wasn't gonna happen; not on Chauncey's watch, anyway. He exploded for 40 that night. The Pistons cruised.

And while he had nights during that regular season where he knocked down game-winners in the closing seconds, it was that unforgettable playoff performance that truly cemented him as Mr. Big Shot.

As the first quarter carried on in LA, Chauncey continued his assault. Another bomb from the arc and a technical free throw to cap things off. Nine points in the opening frame.

He seemed to be on his way to a huge night. Maybe another 40-spot like that memorable assault on the Magic.

Or so we thought...

The game ambled along, with neither team able to jump out too far ahead. It was a choppy affair, as if both teams knew the importance of the situation, but were unsure of how to take control of it.

It was just the kind of night that Chauncey had come to be known for.

He'd think, "Let all these other punks short-arm their jumpers and commit careless turnovers...I aint' phased by it."

Only on this night, he was.

The game continued on, close throughout, and you kept waiting for him to turn it on.

Never happened.

In the 3rd, he forced the issue and made consecutive turnovers. When did Chauncey do that?

He'd try to play off the ball, letting Anthony Carter or J.R. Smith bring it up. But he'd just spend the 24 seconds camped out in a corner, more spectator than participant.

There were even occasions when the ball would be rotated to him for a wide open three-ball, and he would make an extra pass.

He is the extra pass.

You swing the ball madly around the arc so he can shoot. Not so he can catch the ball, look around, and dish to an unsuspecting Linas Kleiza.

And most concerning of all, the majority of Chauncey's offensive sets down the stretch went something like this: bring the ball up the floor, pick up dribble 35 feet from the rim, give it up to Carmelo Anthony, and then watch.

During the game, I found myself admonishing Carmelo for his ill-advised drives to the hoop and suspect shot selection. But then I realized: at least he's doing something.

Chauncey was there...but not really there. Which takes us back to that puzzling night from four years ago.

The Pistons and Spurs headed into that final quarter all tied up at 57. (Nobody said it was the prettiest series in league history.)

Even though Chauncey had been quiet to that point, you couldn't imagine him staying that way with the Larry O'Brien trophy now close enough to touch.

But he did

Nine minutes flew by in the quarter. The Spurs carefully built a six point advantage. Chauncey finally took a shot, a layup that dropped in. But it was too late. Tim Duncan and Co. had another banner to raise.

It's a funny feeling in sports.

You're watching something occur, a live event completely unique to itself. But you can't fight the feeling that you've seen the exact same scene play out before.

That was Game 5 last night.

The Lakers and Nuggets headed to the 4th quarter all knotted up, a Finals appearance likely going to the winner, and just as he did on June 23rd, 2005, Chauncey went dark.

Two shot attempts, one at the beginning, one at the end, neither successful. He was taking a pass on this one.

Shannon Brown hounded him and drew high praise from the ESPN crew. And sure, he did a nice job, but still...this was supposed to be Mr. Big Shot.

This was the guy that labored through the rigorous 82-game schedule just so he could wind up at the center of this kind of series-altering 4th quarter. But this time it came and went, and Chauncey was nowhere to be found. His final line is something that would make Einstein do a double take and say, "Wait, I can't figure this one out."

39 Minutes, 4-7 shooting (3-6 on 3s), for 12 points.

Seven shots?? From Chauncey Billups? In the season's most important game?

Carmelo heaved 23. Even Kenyon Martin jacked up 15. J.R. Smith put up 10 from three point land alone. But defying explanation, after a 3 of 3 start in the game's opening frame, Chauncey would take just four shots in the final 36 minutes.

When Chauncey's first few shot attempts nestled softly through the net, you could tell that his stroke was there. But somehow, his intensity was absent.

Where was the guy that put this team on his back all year after the Iverson trade and changed the whole culture of the Nuggets' franchise?

Where was the guy that sliced and diced the NBA's best point guard, Chris Paul, in round one?

Where was the Chauncey from 2003, when his Piston team traveled to Orlando for a must-have game, and he let the ultimate fate rest in his hands?

Chauncey wouldn't have had it any other way that night.

Either he was gonna lead them to victory, or they were going home. He was not okay with riding shotgun and letting his season come to an end on someone else's account.

In Game 5 against the Lakers, that Chauncey was merely a memory. He simply stood off to the side and watched as his team dropped the game that they so desperately needed.

The Nuggets needed Mr. Big Shot Wednesday night.

Unfortunately, he never arrived.

And now they will most likely spend a long summer trying to figure out where he went...

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