GAME TIME: Nuggets 126, Lakers 113
Everybody knows him as Mr. Big Shot, but Chauncey Billups is more than that. He's also Mr. Big Game and Mr. Big Leader and it's him, much more so that Carmelo Anthony, who is the soul of his team.
For proof-positive just look at the cumulative numbers:
Thus far this season, the Nuggets are 8-4 without Anthony and 3-5 without Billups. And, of course, Billups' absolutely scintillating performance in Denver's latest, and most significant, victory over the Lakers clinches the argument.
Here's a breakdown of Billups' 39-point, eight-assist outburst.
His very first shot -- a successful trey on a kick-out pass -- was indicative of how aggressive he would be with the ball. Billups would make L.A. pay dearly for ignoring him when he nailed four more 3-balls as the Lakers concentrated on jamming the middle in defense of ball penetration by some other Denver player. Later, when L.A. sicced Ron Artest on Billups, a clever utilization of a high screen confused the Lakers defense and led to another big 3-pointer. Billups' other trio of triples came on early-offense pull-ups.
For sure, shooting 9-for-13 from Out There is not a normal occurrence, but Billups did what he had to do when he had to do it.
Otherwise, he racked up points pulling left, pulling right, and by finishing a steal with an open-court layup.
Always calm and in control, Billups also conducted the offense in masterful fashion. In addition to his eight assists, three of his passes opened uncontested shots that his teammates missed -- and one pass led to Nene's making one of two free throws.
The sum of the offense for which Billups was directly responsible comes to 56 points. But he did much more than make Denver's side of the scoreboard blink and flash:
He set several sturdy screens. He made sure to be clearly available whenever a teammate was poised to inbound the ball after a Laker make. He kept the ball popping on offense, mixing entry passes with strong-side wing-passes and reversal passes. He exercised firm control of the pace of the game -- pushing the ball (particularly when he was on the floor with J. R. Smith, Ty Lawson, and Chris Andersen), or making long lead passes, or stepping on the brakes as necessary.
Were there any blemishes in Billups offense?
Of course: He missed two free throws, threw a lazy corner-to-wing pass that was intercepted, had a forced layup blocked, and was charged with his only other turnover when he made a hasty pass while off the floor.
Nobody is Mr. Perfect.
Derek Fisher is the type of player -- relatively slow, but strong and savvy -- that Billups usually smothers on defense. And except for yielding an open shot that Fisher converted when Billups went under an early high-screen, and getting bumped by a stealthy screen that allowed Fisher to drop another open shot, Billups basically took Fisher out of the game.
True, he was lifted by one of Fisher's fakes, but the resulting foul was harmless. And he was badly beaten on a baseline drive, but Fisher missed the layup.
Guarding the speedy Shannon Brown was a different story. Billups was burned by a 3-pointer when he neglected Brown in favor of shading his defense to help on Kobe. Billups also gave up an easy layup after biting on a hard-dribble-left that Brown quickly turned into a right-handed attack on the basket. Including a meaningless trey just before the final buzzer, Brown tallied eight points under Billups' watch. Plus, Kobe took advantage of an unavoidable switch by burying a jumper over Billups defense.
However, Billups did make several significant if extremely subtle plays at this end of the court.
Whenever some other Laker launched a shot, Billups was conscientious in glancing at Fisher (or Brown) and preparing to box them out in case they crashed the boards. (They never did.) Billups made a terrific switch on a squeeze-action sequence after Andrew Bynum received the ball in the pivot that denied the big man the space he needed to find a shot. On weak-side action, Billups covered the passing lanes and denied return-passes to Fisher. After getting trumped by Fisher when he failed to properly navigate a high-screen, Billups managed to valiantly fight his way through every subsequent screen. He refused to back off when another switch had him guarding Kobe on a baseline iso, forcefully bumping Kobe and forcing a bad miss. Billups also executed an effective flash double-team that compelled Kobe to pull up and shoot (and miss) before he could penetrate the paint.
Billups accomplished all of the above even though he slightly rolled his ankle near the end of the second quarter and was unable to run freely thereafter. Add another appellation to his resume -- Mr. Big Heart.
Moreover, when Artest flared up after being rudely and crudely fouled by Joey Graham, Billups took it upon himself to approach Ron-Ron and calm him down ... Mr. Peace-Maker.
In engineering the win, Billups was hugely assisted by a pair of backcourt mates:
Namely Ty Lawson, a rookie who is already a player, but is not yet a point guard. Like a veteran, however, the fleet-footed Lawson can see open (and opening) lanes and can then find a shot-slot.
Also J.R. Smith, who thrives in an uptempo pace. Off of a hard dribble, he can bounce right, left or even backwards to launch his deadly jumpers. Sometimes, though, Smith plays so quickly that he makes mistakes with the ball.
The win puts Denver only 3 1/2 games behind the Lakers in their continuing battle for supremacy in the West. In fact, it's clear that the Nuggets are the only team in the conference that can usurp the Lakers.
And while Billups' numbers will decrease once 'Melo returns to action, Denver's Mr. Biggest will remain the team's most valuable player.