-- Less than a dozen games into his rookie season in 1997, then-Boston Celtics point guard Chauncey Billups, the third player selected in the NBA draft that summer, was struggling against Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway. Coach Rick Pitino, who would trade Billups months later, pulled Billups from the game and never re-inserted him, crushing his spirit.
"Afterwards, I'm leaving the locker room," Billups said, "and Tim Hardaway called me over, sat me down and was like, 'Everybody don't coach like that. You know you're the number three pick for a reason. You're going to be a great player. Just be patient.' "
Six years and five teams later, Billups is emerging into the player Hardaway foresaw. Though Billups has put up some good numbers in his career, he has been at his best in leading the Detroit Pistons to a two-games-to-one lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, which continue Sunday night at the Palace.
Billups has dominated counterparts Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, particularly in all three third quarters, when he has strung together scoring runs. He has used his muscular 6-foot-3 frame to bully opponents on defense and he's done a remarkable job of keeping the Lakers off balance by mixing up jump shots, drives and passes in Detroit's highly effective pick-and-roll sets.
"We've made an all-star out of Chauncey Billups so far," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "I don't know if he's ever been an all-star. I don't think so, but in this particular series, we have made him one."
Billups, second in scoring to teammate Richard Hamilton (23 points per game) in this series, has put up almost identical numbers as L.A.'s Bryant. Billups is averaging 22.7 points, 5.3 assists and 3 rebounds; Bryant 23 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
Perhaps even more important, Billups has kept the Pistons poised and dictated the pace of all three games by knowing when to slow things down or pick them up on offense and by playing pressure defense to force the Lakers to play at a disjointed tempo.
His impact has been so substantial that the Lakers' main adjustment for Game 4 will be to find a way to disrupt Billups, much as they had to do after San Antonio point guard Tony Parker torched them in the first two games of their Western Conference semifinal.
"We are a team that revolves around the comfort zone of knowing the personnel we are playing against," Jackson said. "We've yet to really personalize and individualize what Chauncey Billups brings to this team and his personality as a player. We are coming to terms with that."
Such attention further proves how far Billups has come since Pitino gave up on him. In fact, Billups has used that benching against Hardaway as motivation during difficult times, of which there were plenty this season.
Detroit Coach Larry Brown is notoriously hard on point guards, the position he played. Brown has spent much of the season trying to mold Billups from a score-first, pass-second point guard into someone who looks to set up his teammates. As well as he's played against the Lakers, Billups said he is still not where Brown wants him to be, and Brown isn't shy about letting him know that.
In the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, Billups looked lost trying to figure out when to pass and when to score and managed a postseason-low 12.7 points. Despite having an otherwise solid Game 2 against the Lakers, his missed jumper in the final seconds allowed Bryant to force overtime with a three-pointer and prompted Brown to label Billups's miss a "half-[bad] shot."
"It was a change coaching Chauncey because he's a scoring guard," Brown said. "You know, I expect a lot from point guards in terms of getting everybody involved and being an extension of the coaching staff on the court. So, it's been an adjustment for him and an adjustment for me. As a coach, you want to give your players a chance to do the best they can and put them in a situation where they will be successful, and so we've both been kind of learning."
Billups said he has made a habit of listening and taking heed and parlaying the lessons, no matter what they might be, into something beneficial. It started that night with Hardaway.
"Today, when I see young guys struggle, I do the same thing Tim did for me," Billups said. "I remember that. I remember how much that meant to me and so I know how important it is to keep that going."