Monday, May 5, 2003

As Billups goes, so go the Pistons

The Detroit News

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The ol' buzz was back. The crowd was wild, and another superstar slid out of town, punished by pounding Detroit Pistons, just like it used to be.

The funniest thing happened on Tracy McGrady's climb up the playoff rung. He bumped into Chauncey Billups, and Tayshaun Prince, and bitter reality.

T-Mac, meet C-Bill. Or maybe Billups is C-Note, because in big games, the man has become clean, true money. The Pistons thumped Orlando 108-93 Sunday, and by the end of the series, this was a Billups' boulder rolling downhill, with all the looks changing.

McGrady's confident little smirk? Billups now wears it, after scoring 37 and 40 points respectively in games 6 and 7.

Doc Rivers clever calm? Rick Carlisle now owns it.

The Pistons stomped to the final three victories, but you play seven against a feisty upstart, you discover a few things. We discovered Prince's long arms make him as flexible as -- dare I say it -- Prince Spaghetti.

Mainly, Billups discovered his touch, and now everything he touches turns to gold. Oh yes, do not underestimate what it means for Billups confidence and stature to blast past McGrady, although he had plenty of help.

Prince was the difference in the game with 20 points. Billups was the difference in the series, shooting 35-for-71 in the victories, 11-for-42 in the losses. For a team we thought lacked a difference-maker, here he comes. Richard Hamilton is more consistent, but Billups is the barometer. When he's lost, the Pistons are lost. When he's up, they're up.

Next up is Allen Iverson. I probably shouldn't do this, but here's a suggestion for Iverson: Do not publicly proclaim your desire to shut down Billups. McGrady, a wonderful talent who was weary by the end, demanded the defensive duties after Billups scored 40 in Game 6. It lasted for about seven minutes, before a humbled McGrady switched off.

"When I heard he was going to guard me, I was very confident, very, very happy," Billups said. "I knew we could wear him down. He wanted to do it out of pride, step up to the challenge. That's what great players do."

That's what Billups did, for one series. Actually, he did it for the second half of the regular season, as well. Big shots, tense moments -- Billups loves 'em. Through five games, he was 4-for-28 from three-point range. In the final two, he was 10-for-21. Prince rightly will get plenty of credit. And Carlisle proved to be perfectly composed after absorbing ridiculous heat.

But the Pistons aren't getting ready for Philadelphia if Billups does'nt shake himself awake.

"Chauncey was disappointed the way he played the first few games," Jon Barry said. "Then he decided to take over the series."

It wasn't quite a one-on-one showdown between Billups and McGrady, but it was 1-on-1, jersey number for jersey number. Billups moves on and up, although he did finish the series with just 41-percent shooting.

It took Billups and the Pistons a while to figure out this opponent. They can't mess around early against Iverson, who will be nearly as tough as McGrady. If Billups maintains this look against big-time players, anything is possible. You keep the look long enough, you get the name.

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