- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Chauncey Billups has been with the New York Knicks for only three games. Yet he already makes you wish you could turn back the clock four or five years, and have him play point guard for the Knicks for the long haul rather than watch him soldier through this trade he didn't want or, now, the talk that will surely build about how Billups is just test-driving the Knicks' new star tandem of Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony until Chris Paul finally gets to New York.
If Billups was 30 years old instead of 34, we wouldn't be having that conversation before Paul and his New Orleans Hornets visit Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks could pencil in Billups as their starter through 2014 or so and concentrate instead on chasing the rugged big man/rebounder they need. And Paul's famous toast at Anthony's wedding last summer about how much he, Anthony and Amare Stoudemire all dream of playing together in New York would have been a nice little sideshow to this week's game, if the toast ever would've been uttered publicly at all.
But Billups is indeed 34. And the weird paradox of what's happening now is the better and better Billups plays, the more the Knicks' hunger for Paul is going to grow between now and whenever Paul's fate with the Hornets is decided before his contract expires in 2012.
The way Billups excelled in the final three minutes of the Knicks' rousing come-from-behind win in Miami on Sunday night was nothing new. His nickname, "Mr. Big Shot," was built on the sort of plays he pulled off even when LeBron James was chasing him. Billups had a running nine-footer with 1:43 to play, a deep 3-pointer to put the Knicks up 85-84 with 1:01 to play, then a steal of a pass intended for Mike Miller and a pass to Shawne Williams, who was fouled and converted two free throws to put the Knicks up 87-84. Billups was a presence in his other two Knicks starts, too. Since joining them six days ago, he's averaging 21 points and six assists.
The most important takeaway isn't the stats. With every virtuoso performance that Billups turns in, what Billups is showing is that Stoudemire and Anthony's figuring out a way to successfully co-exist can be hastened by a point guard who's the sort of consummate professional, and leader, and winner that Billups is. It needn't fall just on them.
Billups isn't as good as Chicago's Derrick Rose or Boston's Rajon Rondo at this stage of his career. But if the Knicks draw the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, what Billups' game suggested Sunday is he's still good enough and smart enough to exploit the Heat's season-long troubles against opposing point guards, and perhaps even give the Knicks a chance to steal a seven-game series. That's how much the Knicks' prospects have changed in just six days.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh wasn't just blowing smoke when he said the day after the blockbuster trade that brought Anthony to New York, "The name I'm not hearing enough is Chauncey Billups." Plenty of current NBA players immediately said the same thing. Denver coach George Karl -- who couldn't resist tweaking Anthony on departure for all the defense Anthony doesn't play -- had nothing but raves for the departing Billups, too.
"Chauncey will go down as one of the [game's] greatest winners," Karl said. "His record of eight conference finals is incredible. That's who he is. That's what he stands for."
Nice as all that is, Billups -- who led Denver to the Western Conference finals the year he arrived after seven straight trips and an NBA title with Detroit -- knows the real score here in New York.
"This is a very big day for Carmelo," Billups said as they sat side by side at their introductory Knicks news conference last Wednesday.
When Billups added "I have the toughest job" of anyone on the Knicks roster, he meant having to learn coach Mike D'Antoni's system and his new teammates, finding the right tempo to push the offense and the right places to get everyone the ball. He didn't volunteer there was more to it than that, but when asked directly Billups couldn't tell a lie, either -- having to leave his hometown of Denver so Carmelo could return to his birthplace of New York is going to be part of Billups' adjustment, too. Billups saw himself retiring a Nugget, and then moving into the front office.
"I'm not disappointed at all about being a Knick. It's just not easy to get that call and go home and face your three kids and say daddy's leaving," Billups admitted.
A lesser pro might've let it get to him. But Billups was one of the Knicks' few bright spots in their embarrassing loss Friday at Cleveland, pouring in 20 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. His debut last Wednesday against Milwaukee was also expertly calibrated, not just statistically good. Billups dished out eight assists, grabbed six rebounds and shrugged off a cold shooting night and got 12 of his 21 points from the line -- all while helping to coax 11 fourth-quarter points out of Anthony that clinched the Knicks' 114-108 win on a night Stoudemire fouled out late.
When asked during the MSG broadcast of that game whom Billups reminded him of, Knicks legend Walt Frazier paid Billups the ultimate compliment. He said, "Walt Frazier."
Billups is one of those rare point guards who makes everyone better while still being able to score himself. If Chris Paul ever does get to the Knicks, don't be surprised if he finds Billups leaves him more than a starting spot beside Stoudemire and Anthony -- something worthy of yet another champagne toast: A blueprint of how to win.
Before making way for a younger PG, Billups can teach the Knicks how to win.