What Pressure?

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then you are like Denver's Chauncey Billups, the most serene performer at the toughest times
May 10, 2009

Go to the playoffs nine years in a row, make six straight conference finals, win an NBA championship as well as a Finals MVP award, and the regular season becomes little more than an 82-game nuisance. When point guard Chauncey Billups arrived in Denver last November after being traded from the Pistons for Allen Iverson, he advised his new coaches not to play him more than 36 minutes per game in the regular season lest he wear down in May and June. The notion that he'd need to save his legs sounded presumptuous at the time, considering that the Nuggets had not won a playoff series in 15 years. But Billups averaged 35.3 minutes, and at week's end Denver was up 1--0 in the Western Conference semifinals, fresh for May and perhaps even June.

Since few of the Nuggets have ventured this deep into the playoffs, the 32-year-old Billups has assumed the role of tour guide, showing his younger teammates that there is more to postseason basketball than sellout crowds in giveaway T-shirts. Billups refers to this stretch of spring as "money time," and he knows the price of victory. He skips water breaks at practice to shoot free throws. He delivers locker room addresses before almost every game. "Use the emotion," he told the team before the playoffs. "Use the energy." Last week, as Denver prepared for its series opener against the Mavericks, players feasted on salmon fillets and stuffed chicken breasts in their lounge after practice. Billups, bypassing the spread, planted his black leather swivel chair at the front of the locker room and fixed his eyes on Dallas point guard Jason Kidd, who was dribbling figure eights around opponents on the flat screen in front of him.

"I probably watch 20 times more tape in the playoffs than the regular season," he said. "I'm looking at the guys I'll be guarding, what their tendencies are, what they do when they're pressured, which way they like to go in specific situations. Some guys, when they go right, they have a tendency to pull up. When they go left, they take it all the way to the basket. The playoffs are mental. If the guy you're matched up with is good at roaming without the ball, you have to know what gaps he likes to get in and where he likes to catch the ball. If you're playing against a guy who likes to iso, you have to know his different moves—is he a pump-fake guy or is he a guy who will just catch and go? I watch tape in the regular season too, but never in this much detail."

Although Billups was held to six points and six assists on Sunday at Denver's Pepsi Center, he didn't limit his playmaking to the court. With the Nuggets up by four early in the fourth quarter and backup guard J.R. Smith sparking the offense, Billups called Smith over after a Dallas foul to remind him that Denver was in the bonus. "He wanted me to know that, even though I had it going, we should keep trying to get to the free throw line," Smith said. The Nuggets wound up shooting 10 free throws in the fourth quarter and won 109--95.

Billups does not have to look at the schedule to know when money time has arrived. During the regular season he gets a little shut-eye before every game, usually right after the morning shootaround, but beginning in mid-April he finds himself tossing and turning as he tries to nap. "Something happens to Chauncey when the playoffs start," said Pistons forward Antonio McDyess, who played four full seasons with Billups in Detroit. "His demeanor becomes totally different—more focused, more serious. My locker used to be next to his, and there were times in the playoffs he'd tell me, 'I will not let us lose tonight.'" In Game 5 of the first round this year against the Hornets, with the score tied at halftime, Billups told forward Kenyon Martin the same thing. Billups hit a three-pointer to start the third quarter; by the fourth the rout was on, and Denver was advancing to the second round.

Unlike Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, famous for their playoff scowls, Billups struts and smiles, even through the Finals. He is the rare player who can come across as relaxed without being reckless. Denver coach George Karl keeps a statistic he calls "loose possessions," which refers to unforced turnovers, ill-advised shots and otherwise sloppy plays. Billups has helped the Nuggets in myriad ways, but most important he has limited those loose possessions, which doom teams with freewheeling tendencies like Denver. "Cool and lazy doesn't get it done in the playoffs," Karl said. "When there are two even teams, most often it comes down to extra possessions and easy baskets created by good basketball brains. When a guy like Chauncey has time to prepare for a team, his mental training allows him to pick it apart." Less than six months after Billups came to Denver, Karl already trusts him to call half the plays.

Over his 12-year career Billups has scored 2.4 more points per game in the postseason than in the regular season. That might not sound like much of a differential, but James has averaged only 0.4 of a point more, and Bryant 0.7 fewer. In the playoffs Billups has sunk a half-court shot to send a game into overtime and made three threes in a single OT. He outscored Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsley 23--0 to clinch the 2005 Eastern Conference semifinals, then outscored Heat point guard Damon Jones 18--1 to clinch the conference finals. In postseason situations that Stats Inc. defines as "late and close"—two minutes left, a margin of four points or fewer—he shoots 91.7% from the free throw line.

Not only does Billups go by Mr. Big Shot, but his wife, Piper, goes by Mrs. Big Shot; his eight-year-old daughter, Ciara, goes by Lil Big Shot; and his two-year-old daughter, Cenaya, goes by Baby Big Shot. The nicknames are stitched onto the backs of their powder-blue Nuggets jerseys, encrusted with sequins. In Denver's first two playoff games against New Orleans, the patriarch of big shots scored 67 points and handed out 12 assists without committing a turnover. David Moe, who was a Colorado assistant coach when Billups played in Boulder, watched those Hornets games and thought, It was Indiana all over again, flashing back to the Buffaloes' first-round matchup during the 1997 NCAA tournament. In Colorado's first tournament appearance in 28 years, Billups racked up 20 points in the first half to blow the Hoosiers off the floor.

A Denver native, Billups wears number 7 in honor of John Elway, one of the greatest clutch performers in the history of sports. A decade after Elway's retirement the Mile High City has finally found another quarterback with a sense of occasion and a toothy grin. "You don't make yourself more excited once the playoffs come around," Elway said. "It's innate. Clutch players aren't afraid of tough situations. Chauncey wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line." Elway feels such a kinship to Billups that he wore his jersey on Sunday and introduced him over the public-address system before the game as "the new number 7 in Colorado!" The crowd roared as if the Broncos were about to kick off to the Raiders.

Billups's first embrace of the big moment came when he was in the sixth grade and his team at Skyland Rec Center piled into a brown 1982 Ford Bronco, bound for a tournament four hours away. He had never been outside Denver, and when he arrived in Grand Junction, Colo., he noticed that nearly all the players on the opposing teams were white. Everyone on his team, except for the head coach, was black. "I could tell that the referees weren't treating my kids the way they were treating the other teams," says the coach, Rick Callahan, a Denver-area attorney. "I told the kids, 'We have to play seven guys—five players on the other team and two refs—and you have to deal with it and beat them anyway. Chauncey focused on that. He loved the challenge." Skyland won the tournament, and when Billups visited Callahan last summer, he had his picture taken next to that '82 Ford. "The look he had in his eye during that tournament," Callahan says, "is the same look he has in the playoffs."

Billups claims he doesn't experience nervous time, even in the most hostile environments. "I don't know why that is," he said. "I see it happen to other people, in their eyes, their body language." Their stress gives way to his calm. As he senses that his teammates are shying away from the ball, he becomes more emboldened to take the shot himself. "You can see it coming," said John Hammond, a front-office executive with the Pistons for seven years before becoming the Bucks' general manager in 2008. "He has the ball in the middle of the break and the wings are running ahead of him and the defense is back. Some of the great guards throw ahead and let the wings make the play. Chauncey stops behind the three-point line and lets it go. That shot is as automatic as it gets."

It is the ultimate expression of confidence, passing up two points from close range for three from long distance. It is not the play point guards are taught at clinics, but it is the one that used to light up the Palace in June. With Billups, Detroit went to six consecutive Eastern finals, winning the championship in 2004. After he left they were knocked out in the first round. Would the Pistons still be playing if Billups had never left? "No doubt," McDyess said.

Billups gets credit for changing the culture in Denver, but more than anything he applied the finishing touch. After the Nuggets were swept by the Lakers in the first round last season, assistant coach Tim Grgurich told Karl, "We can't do this anymore." He was referring to the run-and-done system Karl had implemented two years earlier, when he tried to create Phoenix North and abandoned the defensive fundamentals that were the pillars of his career. Karl told his longtime lieutenant, "You're right."

While Karl was not about to install a half-court bump-and-grind, he had to persuade his breakneck team that possessions were to be valued and defense was worth playing, even if scoring averages were sacrificed. He and Grgurich set up individual meetings with players, bracing for resistance. Karl had a four-hour dinner with veteran big man Nenê at The Capital Grille in Denver, and it was a wonder they were not thrown out of the restaurant. "We yelled and screamed a little bit," Karl said. "He didn't say all nice things, and I didn't say all nice things." When the Nuggets reported to training camp, Karl put them through shell drills and rotation drills, old-fashioned defensive standbys.

Karl made the changes, and when Billups arrived five games into the season, he validated them. "I really didn't know how to play defense before Chauncey got here," says Smith. "He's the one who put the D in Denver." Nobody will confuse the '09 Nuggets with the '04 Pistons, but this season Denver allowed the lowest field goal percentage in the Western Conference, a harbinger of playoff success.

After Game 1 was over on Sunday, Billups found his wife and two of his daughters waiting for him in the stands at the Pepsi Center, still sparkling in their sequined jerseys. They walked out of the arena together, into a warm spring evening, big shots on the horizon.

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Billups claims he doesn't experience nervous time. "I see it happen to other people," he says, "in their eyes, their body language."

PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGHFOLLOW THE LEADER With Billups (against Kidd, right) at the point, the Nuggets made the second round for the first time in 15 seasons. PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGH[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGHFRONT MAN Billups takes charge of the young Nuggets in a manner reminiscent of Elway (left), another Denver quarterback who wore number 7. PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGH[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGHLIVING LARGE The names sparkling across the Billups family gear tell the story of Chauncey's record in what he calls "money time."