How Chauncey Billups brings purpose and focus to Blazers’ talent while Portland sits on West

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Trailblazer didn’t look particularly sharp on Tuesday, and compared to the rest of their daring tour through the first month of the season, their 117-110 win Saint Anthony wasn’t her most spirited effort, either.

But, as is often the case during the Blazers’ unexpected rise to the top of the Western Conference, Tuesday’s win was punctuated by some exhilarating and brave actions from coach Chauncey Billups.

As on two other occasions this season, Billups made a quick and decisive call down the center touchline on Tuesday Yusuf Nurkic and pivot to the smaller and more active ones Drew Eubanks. Stuck in a tense back-and-forth midway through the fourth quarter, Billups turned to his specialty – throwing a defensive curveball at an opponent – and implemented a zone defense that kept San Antonio on four points in the final four minutes.

The Blazers’ 10-4 start was fueled by some notable physical performances. Straw Grant (29 points vs. Spurs) plays like an all-star. Damien Lillard (22 points, 11 assists on Tuesday) has returned from abdominal surgery better than ever. Fernee Simons (five 3-pointers) has propelled the Blazers to wins. And beginners Shaedon Sharpe (13 points) looks like the steal of the 2022 NBA Draft.

But it’s Billups’ mind that has added purpose and focus to these skills.

“I think it’s great,” Lillard said when asked about Billups’ game management this season. “In this league, if you give someone too much of the same look, they’ll pick you apart. I think that was something that was in our favor. We went small, we zoned, we picked up full court, we were in the full court zone, we got trapped… we messed it up so much it was unpredictable.

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Tuesday was also another example of Billups delivering a poignant and effective halftime speech. Billups says he doesn’t believe in making rah-rah speeches, but makes a point of addressing first-half issues right away. On Tuesday, as the Blazers’ starters played flat and the team as a whole played sloppily, players said Billups was sharp with his tongue and clear with his message.

Simons said Billups aired some video clips from the first half that showed the Blazers unconnected. And then he pointed out games where they weren’t physical enough.

“He was like, ‘This game is going to go one of two directions…'” said Simons. “And he ended up saying, ‘We need to be ourselves again.'”

Lillard said: “I like that he gets straight to the point. It never feels like the end of the world, but it also never feels like saying, ‘Okay, we didn’t do great, but that’s okay.’ He comes up to us and shows us examples of what he is talking about and we move on to the next thing.”

Billups says there have been other poignant halftime speeches this season — a last week in Miami came to mind — but he says his halftime speeches aren’t designed so much to motivate as to educate. And a wonderful teaching tool, he finds, is to hold players accountable, or as he likes to say, “to put an address on it.”

“I’m not much of a talker, but I’ll tell you what’s going on,” Billups said. “There were several times at half-time where you had to put an address on it. If two or three guys don’t make it, I’m not the coach who says, “We have to get better with leftovers”… No. I say (names)… I write an address on it. Boys go a long way. I’m not a blanket guy – everyone sees it, so I’m not going to come in and put a blanket over it. I’ll say it’s you, you and you.”

If there are two pillars that support Billups early coaching career, it’s his ability to relate to players and the similarity in how he coaches the superstar to the two-way player. He inherited that from Larry Brown, who coached him to a title in Detroit. Coincidentally, Brown was close to coaching opponent Gregg Popovich on Tuesday.

“They all coach in the same way,” Billups said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your best player or a two-way player. They hired me as their coach and that means everyone. I know most people don’t have the guts to do that, but I have, and that’s because I always appreciate it when a coach is honest with me. That brought out the best in me. That’s how I won a championship.’”

So far, Billups has been mostly well received in its One Plus season in Portland. Last season there were a few complaints from players about his bluntness, and there were some complaints from Billups about the players’ toughness and skill. But those players either left or were traded. The new squad not only accepts his coaching, but also demands his toughness.

“He’s with me 24/7… 24/7,” Simons said. “And I told him that’s all I want. I don’t let criticism offend me.”

Billups said: “I’m often sure they don’t love it. i didn’t love it I lost a lot of sleep with Coach Brown. But what they do know is that I care and it’s all about us, the team and making us better. They know when they’re their best self, they get paid. So in the end it’s good for everyone. It’s not disrespectful in any way, it’s passionate. And I think they know that, so I think they know, ‘I have to take this… it’s coming from the right place.'”

That’s why decisions like him made on Monday – he played 33 minutes against 6-foot-9 Eubanks while playing just 15 minutes against starter Nurkić – were so well received in the dressing room. Nurkić was one of Billups’ biggest supporters, and he became the team’s biggest cheerleader when Billups deviated from him to compete against various lineups. On Tuesday, Eubanks had nine points and seven rebounds to put the Blazers ahead with an and-one basket with 3:57 left.

“It’s one of those feeling things,” Billups said. “Nurk got off to such a rough start… and it’s never something personal. But I will do what is best for the team at the moment. And Drew at both ends of the stage gave us some great, great moments. His speed on screens puts teams at a disadvantage…everything he did tonight was great and actually has been all year.”

It was hard to tell what kind of coach Billups was after his rookie campaign last season. Lillard underwent season-ending surgery in January. Three starters were traded in February. The team president resigned in November and the general manager was fired in December. The Blazers played mostly youngsters and G-League players and lost 21 of their last 23 games.

But Simons said he’d seen in these past few months that there was something special about Billups. He thought like a player, saw the game from the sidelines like a player. Simons said he knew the team would thrive once Billups had some talent and experience. One of the reasons for his faith in Billups emerged Tuesday. Simons said he executed a winning game and before the game was called for him again, Billups coached him to prepare for a counterattack that Spurs could execute to prevent the same game from working. Spurs did exactly what Billups predicted.

“He knew they were going to change it and told me it was going to happen before it happened,” Simons said. “It’s almost like he’s still playing.”

And like a gamer, Billups still reviews the feature film to pick his night apart. Just as he was when he was a famous player for 17 years and played with the strength to do his job in the gym, today Billups is gaining confidence as a coach through his film studies.

“I don’t have the most experience, so I have to make up for that somehow,” Billups said. “Work. I have to rehearse it in … situations and know my boys and other teams.

That also means learning from mistakes. Last week, during a 117-112 loss in Dallas, Billups realized he was taking too long to adjust to Double Team outsider super star Lukas Doncic. He ordered a defense that would feign a double team, but that backfired because it worked Spencer Dinwiddie open to 3-pointers. He was reluctant to form a full doubles team as the schedule hadn’t allowed the team to train in 13 days and they still had to fine-tune how to rotate when doubling a player.

“I beat myself up every night after games when I come home and watch it again and wonder what I could have done better,” Billups said. “Could I have made an adjustment sooner? Could I have boarded a little earlier? Should’ve taken my time off… But so did I and say, ‘I did it right there.’”

Some 36 hours after losing to Dallas, Billups was back in the lab, whistle in mouth and his players in front of him on the practice field. Did he get into double-team coverage on full rotation?

“Of course,” Billups said with a smile.

(Photo by Chauncey Billups and Damian Lillard: Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

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