Chauncey Billups is usually a footnote to the game, which comes out to about 10 points and four or five assists.
The fifth-year point guard out of Colorado does not do anything exceptionally well, just everything well enough to earn a place in the NBA. He knows who he is. He is a backup point guard with the Timberwolves, only now he is in the starting lineup because of Terrell Brandon’s bum left knee.
Billups entered the season as a career 39 percent shooter accustomed to being told his services no longer are needed. He played with the Celtics, Raptors, Nuggets and Magic before landing with the Timberwolves as a free agent last season. His is not a bad gig. It beats a 9-to-5 job. He just has to pack light and have a travel agent on 24-hour call.
Billups came into Tony Cheng’s neighborhood as a distant concern of the home team and left with 29 points and a piece of Chris Whitney’s psyche. Billups beat the Wizards, odd as that was, jarring them with 19 points in the first 12 minutes Saturday.
The Wizards expected Kevin Garnett to do what he does. The Wizards had no defensive answers for Garnett. Most teams don’t. He is a 6-foot-11 post player with perimeter skills. He had the open 15-footer anytime he wanted it against the Wizards. That was by design, culled from the scouting report. Invite him to shoot the ball from the outside, where he can be streaky. Get too close to him and he’ll drive past you.
Kwame Brown tried to crowd Garnett early in the second quarter, and Garnett left Brown standing by the seats at courtside and stuffed the ball over Brendan Haywood, drawing a foul.
It was one of those nights for Brown, limited though he was to nine minutes. When he stepped on the floor, the Timberwolves attacked him. Even Sam Mitchell, who does not look a day over 90, dropped back-to-back baskets on Brown in the fourth quarter.
Garnett is hardly bashful from the perimeter, sometimes to a fault, given his size and physical gifts. He made two 3-pointers against the Wizards, one just before halftime. In a previous era, Garnett’s multidimensional skills might have been perceived as a liability, if not a reluctance on his part to mix it up underneath the basket. He is averaging only five free throw attempts a game this season, just two more than Wally Szczerbiak, who earns his keep from the outside.
Garnett finished with 31 points, seven assists and six rebounds, plus a roasting from Michael Jordan in the first half. Jordan was considerably less efficient against Szczerbiak in the second half.
Yet it was Billups who put the Timberwolves on their prolific point pace. With Richard Hamilton and Christian Laettner on the injured list, the Wizards are not apt to win many games if the opposition exceeds 100 points.
Coach Doug Collins referred to the absence of both following the team’s second loss in a row.
“We need Christian and Rip,” he said. “We need our team to get healthy, and our younger guys need to keep getting better.”
As fashionable as it is to extol the virtues of the Timberwolves, they lack a postseason pedigree and the inside grit to be a lasting presence in the Western Conference.
They may have an eye-popping 27-9 record, but they also have stick-like Rasho Nesterovic at center and no real alternatives if the jump shots provided by Garnett, Szczerbiak and Brandon are askew.
The Timberwolves have never won a playoff series in their 12-season existence, the sum of their postseason history being a first-round cameo the last five seasons.
A correction seems likely, no ifs, ands or Billups about it.
“He was the difference in the game,” Collins said.
Billups converted a four-point play with 4:17 left in the first quarter, prompting Whitney’s departure and a call to Tyronn Lue. By then, Billups was having the time of his professional life, with 15 points, and the Wizards were down 10 points because of this unexpected force.
By then, the damage was done. Hard as the Wizards fought to stay in the game, closing the deficit to one point late in the third quarter, they could not sustain the free-wheeling pace.
It was a bump on the team’s path to respectability, administered by the incidental part whose stars apparently were in perfect alignment.