MINNEAPOLIS While the Clippers got their house in order, turning themselves from a flailing and fragile team into one that once again resembles a player in the Western Conference, Mo Williams sat and watched.
The sedentary life meant daily foot massages, turns on the elliptical trainer and, lately, trash talking his way through 1-on-1 games with teammates. It also meant an extra five pounds.
It was easy, while the Clippers beat Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis in winning 9 of 11, to forget that they were missing Williams.
So on Thursday, in an otherwise forgettable 95-82 win over undermanned Minnesota, Williams reminded them.
As the playoffs loom, there is always room in a crowded backcourt and in an inexperienced locker room for a change-of-pace, attacking point guard and a veteran voice.
Williams showed again what he can provide on the court, providing a jolt with 14 points, five assists and a steal to a team that sorely needed it after an exhilarating and draining victory at Oklahoma City the night before.
"We needed him desperately," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "It's good to have him back."
It took all of nine seconds for the Clippers to inbound the ball, get it up the court and into Williams' hands before he launched a jumper on his first touch. It missed, but before a minute had passed, Williams drained a 3-pointer.
In all, he made 6 of 11 shots in just under 20 minutes. But it was the way Williams played, with a bounce in his step and tremendous decisiveness that stood in contrast the orchestrated probing when the offense is in the hands of Chris Paul. If Eric Bledsoe can change the pace of the game defensively, it is Williams who can do so at the other end.
"That's what Mo does," said Paul, whose acquisition pushed Williams to the bench, a role he accepted grudgingly at the start of the season. "Once we saw that first one left his hands, it's OK, he's back. When you shoot the ball like he can, you don't lose it too often.
Mo knows we need him to score. He's instant offense. We need him out there to be our playmaker."
All season long it has appeared the Clippers had a surplus of guards, but injuries to Chauncey Billups, Bledsoe and Williams have kept overcrowding to a minimum, even with the trade deadline acquisition of Nick Young.
The last three weeks have provided an opportunity for Bledsoe, the second-year guard who missed the first five weeks recovering from knee surgery, to contribute more. He has been disruptive at the defensive end, and has gained the trust of Del Negro who has played him down the stretch in crucial games. It has also allowed Randy Foye to settle in as the starter alongside Paul and Nick Young has begun to take on the role of a defending big guards and small forwards off the bench though his shooting remains erratic.
"With me being out, it gave guys the opportunity to get in a better rhythm and got guys some more minutes," Williams said. "That should be helpful. It shows our depth and it showed me areas where I can come back and fit in. It's easy for me because I'm coming off the bench. I think it's harder if you're the starter and you're missing and then you're coming back and playing heavy minutes. I'm not playing 30-something minutes anyway, so I'm not really concerned about the rhythm of the game."
Del Negro said Williams' return will force him to juggle the rotation once more, but he is pleased to have the problem.
"It's another weapon," Del Negro said of Williams. "If Mo's having an off night, we've got Bled or Nick Young now. We've got other options. Guys have to be ready. Some nights it's going to accept their role and do their job right now. The bottom line is we're trying to win basketball games."
Williams said before the game that he wasn't excited to be returning a nine-year veteran, he has been in the league too long for that. But he was happy to back with eight games to play before the playoffs.
Williams credited the entire training staff for the work they did on his toe, which was badly sprained in a loss at New Orleans, forcing him to hobble off the court. The trainers used laser treatment and gave it almost daily massages.
"It wasn't the country club massage, I'll tell you that," said Williams, who joked that he might have sweated off all the weight he had gained. "I wanted to cry."
He had set a target of returning last Saturday against Sacramento, but it did not feel quite right so the target date was pushed back. After practice Tuesday in Oklahoma City, he engaged Young in a heated 1-on-1 where their mouths got in as much work as their legs.
It was important to wait, said Williams who, along with Kenyon Martin, is the only active Clipper to have played in a conference final. The Clippers trail the Lakers by a game for the Pacific Division lead, and lead Memphis by 1 games for fourth place and homecourt advantage in the first round.
"Obviously the playoffs are nearing," Williams said as he soaked his feet in a bucket of ice water. "It's a different basketball game then. I've talked privately with some of the young guys that haven't been to the playoffs, letting them know how different the playoffs are. Every possession is key. The attention to detail has to be at high alert. You've got to be all in. You've got to be all one."
And most importantly, as Williams might note, you have to be all there.