By John Hollinger
SAN ANTONIO—Sometimes one can't appreciate a player with subtle skills until circumstances push him to the forefront. The recent play of the Denver Nuggets provides a good example. With league-leading scorer Carmelo Anthony sidelined by an ankle injury, one would think the Nuggets would struggle mightily. Instead, his absence provides a great opportunity to appreciate the quiet effectiveness of point guard of Chauncey Billups.
We’ve read and heard plenty, of course, about how his arrival early last season ignited the Nuggets. However, Denver’s six wins in nine games without Anthony this month—including five against winning teams—reinforces how impactful his addition was.
Sunday’s 103-89 win in San Antonio was the latest 'Melo-less conquest for the Nuggets, and perhaps the last – Denver officials say he’ll play on Monday against Sacramento. But it provided perhaps the best example of Billups’ veteran savvy.
With the Spurs rallying in the fourth quarter and Denver clinging to a two-point lead with five and a half minutes left, Billups caught a rebound in the corner near the Denver bench, heard an instruction from coach George Karl, and signaled to him, in so many words, “Don’t worry, I got this.”
It was a tense two-point game at the time and San Antonio’s Roger Mason had just missed a 3-point try that would have given the Spurs the lead, but Billups quickly put an end to any hopes for San Antonio. Dribbling upcourt and catching Richard Jefferson on a transition switch, he made a quick feint toward the basket and then pulled up for a 3, kicking off of a five-minute stretch where Billups took over the game.
“[Karl] was just saying we need to get a good shot, not a fast play,” said Billups. “I came down and I was going to back down but I made one little move and Jefferson backed up so far that my instinct took over. I had to shoot.”
That shot put Denver up 85-80 and the Spurs would never have the ball with a chance to take the lead again. When San Antonio closed within two points later in the quarter, Billups did his thing again. First he split a trap with a gorgeous bounce pass to a cutting Kenyon Martin for a basket and foul, giving Denver some breathing room. He did it with typical savvy: Coming out of a timeout, he had noticed the Spurs were trapping him and lured two defenders all the way to the sideline to clear a lane for Martin.
“We had a play that was working for us, and Kenyon and I kind of remixed it,” said Billups. “I knew they were trapping me hard, so I told Kenyon that I’m going to drag the trap out. If they stay with me, when I throw it to you, you’ll have time to make any play you want.”
“[Billups] does that a lot,” said Karl. “It was a play we’ve never really run before—it’s Reggie Miller’s play … That’s why I’m very blessed to have a guy like Chauncey. We run actions at the end of the game that we don’t run most of the game, and that’s easy to do with Chauncey.”
Billups wasn’t done. He blew up San Antonio’s next play by reading a George Hill entry pass to Manu Ginobili and dropping down to steal it. On the next offensive trip, he raced in from halfcourt to grab a loose ball near the foul line and quickly fired out to J.R. Smith for a wide-open, backbreaking 3-pointer. The sequence ignited a game-ending 16-4 run that sent the home fans scurrying for the exits.
The win makes Denver 12-3 in January despite Anthony playing only six of those games, and Billups has been the main reason. He finished with 25 points and 11 assists, continuing a torrid stretch of January that’s seen him play better than any point guard in basketball: 24.2 points, 6.9 assists, 47.8% shooting on 3s and an amazing nine free-throw attempts a game. At the age of 33, he’s averaging a career high in points (19.2) and free-throw attempts (7.5 per game).
He had some help, of course. Kenyon Martin, averaging a double-double this month (14.9 points, 11.3 boards), tied a season-best with 27 points despite not making a single dunk or lay-up. He hit several mid-range jumpers after San Antonio traps of Billups and J.R. Smith left him open, and converted a few short hooks near the basket.
“When you jump Chauncey,” said Karl, “Kenyon [becomes] our playmaker, and he was incredible tonight. It might be the best game he’s played for us in the time I’ve been here. His decisions, his efficiency, his defense. And he made shots.”
While the Nuggets prepare to welcome Anthony back, the underlying story is that Denver is making its move in the West. They’ve already moved two games ahead of Dallas in the race for the conference’s second seed, and with home games coming against Sacramento and Phoenix they can lengthen their advantage heading into Friday’s showdown with the Lakers.
Incidentally, it appears they’ll be doing it more or less with the current roster. Multiple sources said Denver’s longstanding pursuit of Indiana’s Jeff Foster is over because he’s likely to require surgery for his injured back and miss the rest of the season. With the team over the luxury tax and possessing few quality trade assets, especially with J.R. Smith trade rumors drowning in cold water, it appears other potential moves for frontcourt help seem nearly as unlikely.
The Nuggets' iffy depth stands out as a vulnerability that additional injuries could yet expose, especially if they lose a big man. But in a Western Conference where virtually every contender has proven weaker than expected—including Sunday’s opponent—the Nuggets look rock solid by comparison. Leaving an arena that Karl said was his second-favorite (after Madison Square Garden) to depart with a win, his team’s chances of departing the regular season with the West's second seed look as strong as they have all year.