- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- No one has a better sense of where a team's jugular is than Kobe Bryant. That's why you saw him all over Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups for 94 feet in the waning minutes of Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
With a loss already in the books, Kobe was looking to get a jump start on Game 4 by showing he could put a chokehold on the Pistons' lifeline, which is and has been Billups. You know, just to give Billups and the rest of the Pistons something to think about on their two off days. Intimidation, after all, is something the Lakers have gained mileage from all season, if not the past several seasons.
Only it didn't work.
Billups not only survived the challenge but he welcomed it. As if he'd been waiting for it his entire life. And, in a way, he has.
"I loved it, man," he said later.
If there's a reason to believe the Pistons can weather what assuredly will be the Lakers' full onslaught to square the best-of-seven series instead of falling into a 3-1 hole, it's the smile Billups had on his face the second he realized what Kobe was doing. Or it's that he then juked Bryant, cut to the basket, took a pass and drew a fifth foul on Shaquille O'Neal and sank the two free throws, turning an 18-point lead to 20. It was as if Chauncey said, "Grab our jugular? Best watch your own neck."
It was one play at the end of a blowout, but as far as statements go, there wasn't a bigger one. It's the kind of statement we've come to expect from Kobe, whether it's dunking on Tim Duncan and David Robinson a few years ago or slicing through the entire Timberwolves' defense to dunk on and over Michael Olowokandi.
In any case, don't underestimate the value of a point guard not only willing to accept a challenge from the game's greatest player (and assassin) but relishing it. "It definitely did something for all of us," Tayshaun Prince said.
For all the value of Xs and Os and players understanding their roles and executing them, winning a championship ultimately comes down to a battle of wills. No team can win without a guard who believes he is unstoppable. Speedy Claxton and Manu Ginobili combined to be that guy for the Spurs last year. Kobe and Derek Fisher have shared that role on previous championship Lakers' teams. If the Pistons have a weakness, it's that Rip Hamilton doesn't like handling the ball under pressure. If they have a saving grace, it's that Prince can handle the ball against most small forwards and Lindsey Hunter appears up to the challenge in short stints as well.
But it will come down to Billups and, still being a work in progress by his own admission, it's not clear if he has the balance of protecting his own team and attacking the opponent down cold enough to close this series out. He didn't in Game 2, attacking the basket too early in order to get his shot -- which he missed -- rather than burning another six seconds off the clock, which would've left the Lakers with less than five instead of 10.9, which resulted in Kobe's game-tying three and eventually an overtime loss. He didn't in the first half of Game 3, either, trying to singlehandedly put the Pistons ahead. He succeeded, but Detroit had only five team assists, and he had none, and should've had a lead much bigger than seven.
"I was so mad," coach Larry Brown said. "I've felt since the start of the series there was a certain way we had to play and I wasn't happy that our guards didn't have any assists at halftime."
But as any coach will tell you, it's easier to have a player who is ready to attack anytime, anywhere, and pull him back than to teach someone how to take over a game and be more aggressive.
"When the season started, they definitely weren't on the same page," Prince said. "Larry knew Chauncey's strength was being a scoring guard, but he still had to get Chauncey to understand how to get everybody involved, how to reverse the ball, how to pick between a good shot and a bad shot and that the defense starts with him. It's gradually gotten better, to where, at this point, they're on the same page."
It couldn't have happened if Billups hadn't accepted that he needed to change, unlike, say, the Lakers' starting point guard Gary Payton. (Although it should be noted that talk of Payton being a distraction to the Lakers is outdated. While he has been frustrated at times with his performance in the playoffs, he hasn't balked at what Phil Jackson has asked him to do.) But if Billups was more receptive from the start, it's that he's long viewed himself as a star point guard, even while he switched teams five times in his first four seasons.
All he needed, says Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons is the right team and the right coach. "I'd heard when he was in college that the kid was going to be a player and he is a player. He's been fortunate at this time to find a coach willing to take him under his wing, and he's probably grown from his travels."
As in grown hungry.
"A lot of the situations I've been in, I wasn't the guy," Billups said. "Now, finally, I'm running my team. I've always wanted to be an extension of my coach on the floor, but the only way you can do that is to study that coach and spend a little time with him and know what he thinks and when he's thinking it."
Fisher, for one, believes the Lakers will have to disrupt the Pistons' flow by applying pressure elsewhere.
"You need somebody who doesn't easily rattle, who gets knocked down and just gets right back up," Fisher said. "Chauncey has been solid and that's what you need. Sometimes imposing your will is that you're just always there."
So far, Billups has been. For the Pistons to finish what they've started, he'll have to continue to be.