- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

In the interminable course of the NBA’s 82-game preliminary, a Chauncey Billups is bound to deliver an excruciating truth on occasion.

And so it was with the Wizards in their last outing on Fun Street.

Billups hit the game-winning shot with seven-tenths of a second left and turned a sea of anxious faces into various states of catatonia.

This was the step back from the two the Wizards have taken forward this season.

The Wizards squandered a 19-point lead in the first half and the 64-point assault of Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes. That is lifted from the play-by-play sheet.

What was missing from the numbers was the calculated gamble on the part of the Wizards to outshoot the Pistons in the final 24 minutes after holding a 17-point lead at halftime.

This is characteristic of a young team that prefers to score rather than defend. This strategy bodes favorably against the dregs of the Eastern Conference, several of whom could not reach 100 points if you allowed them to participate in a layup drill.

But this is not exactly an effective strategy against the formidable teams of the NBA, of which the Pistons are one.

The Pistons may not be up to their championship standards of last June, when a confluence of improbable factors aligned their stars in perfect fashion. Now that we know more than we ever cared to know of the former Lakers, we wonder how they kept it together enough to reach the NBA Finals.

As the NBA’s version of “The Royal Tenenbaums” of 2004, the quirky Pistons have the championship mettle to weather the comeuppance of a team that neglects the tiny details. The Wizards look good in the box score, are entertaining to follow and have plenty of gumption. Yet they have fallen for the early-season lie that they can coast at times on their shooting elbows.

It is the lie that goes unexposed against the Bobcats and the like of the NBA. It is the lie that leaves the Wizards cold and dazed on a late December night after frittering away what was seemingly theirs.

The Wizards scrambled the flow of the game and flustered the Pistons in the first half, going navel-to-navel with a team that prefers set-up basketball and a sleep-inducing game in the 80s. This is the correct approach, considering the strength of Ben Wallace, the long arms of Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince and the absence of a genuine go-to player.

Otherwise, the Pistons are a limited team, as championship teams go, which either is the genius of Larry Brown or the benefit of residing in a perspiration-free conference that goes no deeper than two or three teams each season.

Shaq is confirming the point anew, as the newly banished resident of the conference who has led his team to the top of the standings with conviction.

Sensing the result was an accomplished fact, the Wizards relaxed on defense in the second half and permitted Billups to be all he could be, which turned out to be a 32-point heartbreaker and a lesson to recall in the months ahead, which is: Remember the Billups game.

And nothing against Billups, but it is not his likeness on the NBA logo. He is what he is, a nice player, in the jargon of the day, who was a .402 percent career shooter going into the season.

The Wizards have reached their first intestinal check of the season, starting with a meeting with the highly beatable Celtics in Boston today. A five-game stretch at home follows.

As long as Etan Thomas is glued to the bench in street clothes and Kwame Brown is sentenced to basketball purgatory, the Wizards have no choice but to extend teams on defense and be a ball-hawking entity. If not, they have neither the brawn nor the tall bodies after Brendan Haywood to hold in check the opposition’s post-up players and lane-driving artists.

So remember the Billups game.

Chauncey Billups.

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