Chauncey Billups salutes the crowd at the Palace, who gave the former Piston a standing ovation on his return as a Nugget. Billups scored 34 in a Pistons victory. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)
AUBURN HILLS -- Oh, we've seen this before. There was Chauncey Billups dribbling, dribbling, dribbling, defender in his face, clock running down. And there was the big shot, a leaning, twisting jumper, swished again and again.
Billups was back at The Palace Tuesday night for the first time with the Nuggets, hitting jumpers and drawing cheers. That's the first chunk of nostalgia. The other unexpected piece was, the Pistons were back to their old style, passing the ball and spreading the shots.
Oh, we've seen that before too, and we wondered if we'd ever see it consistently again. Antonio McDyess got hot, then Tayshaun Prince, then Richard Hamilton, and when it was over, it was a perfect night for Pistons fans -- Billups got his stirring ovation but the Pistons got another clutch victory, 100-95, their third straight.
I'm not ready to say the Pistons have found themselves without Allen Iverson (ailing back), but, um, they seem to be finding each other, at least. It certainly helped that the Nuggets played without suspended star Carmelo Anthony. But the Pistons have clawed back above .500 at 30-29, and in consecutive victories over Orlando, Boston and Denver, they've looked revived.
Maybe the wild emotions inspired them this night. Billups certainly seemed intent on reminding the Pistons what (or who) they're missing. It was vintage Billups, 21 points in the first half, 34 for the game, and the crowd actually seemed to appreciate it.
What they've missed
The pregame introduction elicited a loud, long acknowledgement of what Billups meant here. When he came out in his powder-blue Nuggets garb, the crowd stood and cheered, and cheered. For about a minute, the noise grew and Billups raised his hands, blew kisses, then clapped and waved and blew more kisses.
"Just an unbelievable reception," he said afterward. "No words can explain how good it made me feel. I'll never forget that."
And then Billups stopped playing nice. There were drives and nifty passes, and there was a classic seize-the-moment 3-pointer to give the Nuggets a 65-54 lead.
And then the Pistons stopped playing nice. And that should be their mantra the rest of this weird season, no matter what happens with the Iverson saga.
Billups looks reborn, directing a new batch of teammates in need of smart leadership. So here's the challenge for the Pistons: Someone (Hamilton?) needs to pull a similar rebirth for them.
Everyone contributed down the stretch, including Rodney Stuckey, whose presence helped lead to Billups' absence, and Hamilton, who spent plenty of time guarding his buddy.
"It was fun, but it was hard, especially early in the game," Hamilton said. "This is the guy I've been going to war with the last six years and now he's on the opposite team. So it took me a minute to realize what was happening. In the third quarter, I told him, 'You had your fun, everybody screamed your name, now it's time to put the clamps on you.' "
Focus on Hamilton
Hamilton, starting for the third straight victory, finished with 21 points on a classically balanced scoresheet. Billups was ready, but so were his former teammates.
"In the fourth quarter, they really started trapping me aggressively," said Billups, held to four points in the final quarter. "I knew it was coming, and they did a good job."
It was Old Selves Night, and it was fun to watch. The Pistons still have tons of work and a big unresolved issue, with Iverson expected back today after getting his back examined. He'll have to accept his off-the-bench role or everything he said since he arrived was fake.
Iverson is supposed to bring energy and an easier way to score, and I still think he can. But the focus shifts to Hamilton and others, and on nostalgia night, the Pistons were up to the task. Billups showed plenty but so did the Pistons, and now we'll see if the nostalgia can last.
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