LOS ANGELES — Chauncey Billups knew what people were whispering the night he crumbled to the floor last Feb. 6 in Orlando. He could hear them talking.
Retirement. The end of the line. A great career with a tragic ending.
But Billups said the thought never entered his mind. A ruptured Achilles tendon was not the way he was going to leave the game, not in his 15th season in the NBA and his first with the Clippers.
“When I went down, I wasn’t going to hear the word ‘no’ or ‘He’s done,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t going to listen to none of y’all. I wasn’t going to give in to that.”
Wednesday night at Staples Center, Billups finally made it back. He walked onto the court to a standing ovation and helped the Clippers end their four-game losing streak with a 101-95 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Billups played 19 minutes and 24 seconds, scored seven points and gave the Clippers an added presence in the backcourt with point guard Chris Paul. He was on the floor for the last four minutes of the game and threw an alley-oop pass that teammate DeAndre Jordan slammed for a dunk and a 97-93 lead with 16.6 seconds left.
Although he’s not in game condition yet, Billups said he knew it was time to get back in uniform.
“It’s going to be a month or two before I’m back to myself,” he said. “But whenever it is, the team needs me now.”
There’s no doubt about that. After an 8-2 start, the Clippers had fallen into a state of disarray, especially on the defensive end of the court. They aren’t fully recovered, but they had an improved cohesion against the Timberwolves and showed a resolve in their ability to close out the game in the fourth period.
They converted on most of their open shots, created turnovers and made free throws, all areas of concern during their losing streak. They also held the T-Wolves to 37.8 percent shooting, including just 3 of 12 by the usually reliable Kevin Love.
“It was an ugly, hard-fought game,” said Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who had 13 points and six rebounds off the bench. “We had to fight hard for the game, and after losing four straight, we’ll take a win any way we can get it.”
Having Billups on the floor was a bonus. Coach Vinny Del Negro opted to start the veteran rather than bring him in off the bench, but said he intended to manage Billups’ minutes.
Asked why he was starting Billups in his first game back, Del Negro said, “Because he deserves it. I’ve seen him practice, and he’s been practicing with the first group. He’s a starter, and why waste time messing with the rotation? Let’s get him in there.”
Billups played the first six minutes, came out for a rest and didn’t re-enter the game until 4:50 was left in the first half.
“Right now, I feel good,” Billups said. “I played 20 minutes, but there’s nothing like a game. I feel like I’m in pretty decent shape, but there’s nothing like a real, live game. I’m pretty sure I’ll be sore in the morning.”
Even so, Billups said he wasn’t ready to come out when Del Negro pulled him in the first quarter.
“I’m never ready,” he said.
Paul, sitting next to him in an interview room, added, “I wasn’t ready for him to come out. We were talking about the play we were going to run, and he said, ‘I’m about to go out.’ I wanted him to play 30-something minutes.”
In time, it will come. For now, Billups is just happy to be wearing a uniform instead of a suit and sitting on the sideline.
“Just to be out there was great,” Billups said.
When he was injured, he knew people were saying he should simply retire, but he knew it wasn’t time.
“I can understand why they said that,” he said. “I’m 35, pretty much done it all, made a good living for myself and my family, made most of my money, did everything I wanted to do. Why would I come back?
“But that’s just not how I’m cut, man. I wanted to come back — not to prove everybody wrong, but for my own self. I wasn’t going to go out like that.”