LOS ANGELES (AP) - Chauncey Billups returned to the court for the Los Angeles Clippers against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night after being sidelined for more than nine months because of injury.
``He's been practicing for about a month,'' coach Vinny Del Negro said about 1 1/2 hours before tipoff. ``He's been cleared from his injury for quite a while now, but a few weeks ago he tweaked his back. So it was more precautionary.
``I'm just proud of Chauncey because I've seen him on a daily basis and how hard he's worked to get back. So it's not surprising, because everyone knows his character,'' Del Negro added. ``You saw the difference he made last year. I mean, we were 15-7 with him out there. I'm not going to expect him to be back to that level right away, but it's nice to start the process.''
Billups played in 20 games last season before he tore his left Achilles tendon Feb. 6 against Orlando. He averaged 15.0 points, 4.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds while playing 30 minutes a game.
``I have all the confidence in him that he's going to get back to playing at a high level again,'' Del Negro said. ``He's not in game condition right now, and he's not supposed to be. But I think he'll handle the minutes he gets. I just want to work him in. We'll monitor his minutes and have consistent dialogue throughout the game. It's a process he's going to have to work through and we will have to work through as a team.''
Needless to say, Billups' teammates are excited to have him back - and in the starting lineup.
``He's a starter,'' Del Negro said. ``So why waste time messing with the rotation? He and Chris Paul played together in 22 games last year. Their chemistry and feel for the game is fantastic. But it's not going to happen in one day, because he's been out for a long time.
``Chauncey is very experienced and he knows the game so well, so he'll take the pressure off everybody. He has a great demeanor. He comes across as a student of the game and a professional, and guys respect that.''

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