This happened two summers ago, at Chauncey Billups’ wedding. One of Chauncey’s best friends, Tyronn Lue, was a groomsman in the ceremony. He was walking a bridesmaid down the aisle. Lue had recently won an NBA championship with the Lakers, and he was wearing his championship ring. As he came toward the altar, he passed several of Billups’ other basketball friends — including Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Antonio McDyess — sitting in the pews. So he casually lifted his right hand and wiggled his ring finger.
They all cracked up.
“I could see it from up there,” Billups recalled Thursday. “That ring, him flashing it. Even I started laughing.”
Laughing and lusting. Every player wants a ring of his own. But until it comes, every player wants to feel that he’s getting closer. Which is why tonight is so important to Billups. Some of his teammates, like Cliff Robinson, have already been to the NBA Finals. Others, like Ben Wallace, Jon Barry and Chucky Atkins, have at least advanced to the later rounds.
But Billups, 26, whom many feel is the heart and soul of the Pistons these days — and the gas that runs their offensive engine — has never been out of the first round. He not only can’t hold up a ring. He can’t even hold up one finger.
“This year it’s even more important,” he said. “I’ve lost in the first round with Minnesota, but there I was playing backup point guard. That wasn’t a team that was led by me.
“Here, I feel this team is more involved with me and me with it. I want people to say he helped lead them to the next level. Not, ‘Oh, Chauncey Billups, he couldn’t get past the first round.’ “
A marked point guard
The Pistons are a difficult pie, hard to slice into measurable pieces. Wallace is obviously crucial, and without him, the team wasn’t the same. Then again, Tayshaun Prince did a wonderful job on Tracy McGrady in Game 5, and, given how critical McGrady is to the Orlando Magic, you could argue that the rarely used Prince might hold the keys to the kingdom.
But the truth is, when Detroit has lost in this series, Chauncey Billups didn’t play well. In the three defeats to the Magic, Billups shot 26 percent from the field — versus 45 percent in the two victories.
“Man, I can’t remember ever shooting that bad,” he said. “You’re gonna have off nights, but I think those numbers had to do with getting the ball tossed back to me with three seconds on the shot clock and having to heave something up there to beat it.”
That was not by accident. The Magic has made no bones about Billups’ importance. The Magic players double him, they pressure him from the in-bounds pass — in short, they try to clog him every time he has the ball. Stop Billups, they figure, and you stop Detroit.
Biggest game of his career
Did you know that Chauncey was named after his mother’s old boyfriend? And that his father didn’t mind? Obviously, the guy comes from flexible stock.
Still, Billups, on his sixth team in as many seasons, clearly wants to stop moving addresses and wants to start moving the bar. Toward the end of the regular season, there was often no stopping him. He was there for the fast breaks, there for the jumpers — and, most importantly, he was there for the finish. You lost count of how many times Billups hit the key shot in the closing seconds.
But in this first-round series, he has faced an avalanche. Tight defense. Nervous teammates waiting for him to go first. And a too-predictable game plan.
“It was getting that whenever I called a play,” he said, “I would see Orlando’s whole defense shift. They knew what we were doing.”
His coach, Rick Carlisle, was slow to change things. Billups bit his tongue.
“In Minnesota, during the playoffs, we might play Game 1 one way and in Game 2 not run a single play we ran in Game 1. But all coaches are different. Rick’s done a great job.”
Just the same, Billups took some things into his own hands. In Game 5, he started calling plays, say, for Rip Hamilton, but then he took it himself
“just to make them wonder next time which was which.”
Hey. You do what you have to.
Now what he has to do is keep that intensity, keep that chicanery, spearhead the offense, and not get caught in the sticky web the Magic keeps weaving around him.
Otherwise, by 10 tonight, he’s home for the summer, once again, having never won a playoff series.
“You know, I still remember talking to Lue during the Finals,” Billups said.
“He called me up and said, ‘Oh, man. I never thought I’d feel anything like this. It’s incredible. We’re winning. We feel great. They treat you like kings. You gotta experience this one day, Chauncey.’ “
He’s trying, he’s trying. It’s like his wedding day. There’s one ring on his finger, and another on his mind. Game 6 takes center stage.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).